Is our localism too artisinal?

IMG044I recently reviewed Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener (summary: Excellent. Buy it) and was reminded of a philosophical and yet very practical farming question I asked him over beer.

“Since the economy is contracting, and for many reasons we believe the trend will be a general worsening of quality of life, what is your succession plan—what will you do when people can no longer pay for gourmet baby lettuce mix or pints of berries for $6.50?”

Jean-Martin did not have an answer to this question. I also talked a lot about Eliot Coleman in that review, and I don’t recall him answering this question either.

Both men are very intelligent and well-educated. Both men have looked at many factors: industrial agriculture is extractive, and so by definition is unsustainable; climate change; the depletion of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. They have, correctly I think, argued that human-powered, small-scale farming is a good response.

Both men have also plotted a course for profitability—they are farming for all the right reasons, but they aren’t going to give the food away. And, they want to show other would-be farmer’s that we can reverse the trend of retirements, foreclosures, auctions and consolidation that has been ongoing for decades.1

Fortier also struck me as—ahem—a bit of a doomer. Which is to say I think he has drawn the logical conclusions from the evidence at hand.

And so I was surprised when he didn’t have an answer for my question.2

 

I think it is great that so many people are living a more local life. I love the joy of a local economy—I write this with my belly full of local and homemade food, wearing a hoodie made in Vancouver by my friends at Cima Coppi, and wearing Dayton Boots, which were manufactured maybe ten blocks from the hoodie. I find meaning and joy in these relationships. Just pulling on my boots gives me a tiny pleasure every single time—thousands of times over many years.

But most of us localists are still parasites on globalization—we need the fantasy of ever-inflating real estate to fuel renovation and construction, to fill government coffers with tax revenue to be spent on teachers and nurses who shop in retail stores and take trips. We need all these rich urbanites to buy our hand-crafted goods and lovingly harvested veggies.

It sure doesn’t take much to stick a pin in the bubble, as we saw in the US housing market in 2008—which spilled over into Canadian retail and caused a lot of damage. Recently Tim Hudak campaigned on slashing 100,000 jobs. How many of those well-paid government workers shop at the farmer’s market or buy veggies through a CSA?

So I worry. Localism has a large component of seven dollar loaves of bread, ten dollar pints of ice cream, four dollar tomatoes—and stratospheric prices as soon as you start talking about clothing or shoes.3 How resilient is this localism? How much change can these businesses withstand?

I don’t think these things are very resilient at all. During the Great Depression, there was a surplus of goods and services because people didn’t have enough cash. With the amount of  personal debt we are piling up, people don’t have a lot of slack in their discretionary spending—consumer spending is brittle, susceptible to small perturbations in interest rates, resource prices or the new normal extreme weather events. Regardless of the “value” of goods, if  people do not have disposable income, goods will sit on the shelves.

I don’t have any answers to this—other than I think shoe repair has a great future.

I do see a pattern, though I can’t give it a name. Those of us in the emerging alternative economy—organic gardening, Eastern Medecine, yoga, gourmet kimchi, Reiki, herbalism, coaching, soap-making, organic make-up—you get the picture; we seem to think we should do what we love, and be able to buy a house and a car like everybody else.

We think doing what we love should pay us just as handsomely as doing what we hate.

That is backwards.  You should be paid well for doing what you hate—because otherwise you wouldn’t do it. The most mind-numbing and least demanding jobs should pay the most. There is an enormous Boredom and Repetition Premium owed to factory workers.

So I don’t know. Localism has activated a lot of love-based work. But I think, when money is tight, people will be pretty quick to switch to two-dollar loaves of bread from the supermarket. Filling day-to-day needs at day-to-day prices seems like a largely untouched market—and when I say needs, I really mean needs, not fancies, or desires, or penchants, or whims. Needs.

Obviously this is a problem. If you want to be a small, local, non-artisinal baker making normal loaves of bread for the supermarket, you are competing with the megacorps that put the local bakers out of business4 in the first place. How do we balance between differentiating ourselves against the megacorps and becoming instantly irrelevant in a financial contraction?

Looking at the challenges of artisinal bakeries vs. local bakeries vs. megacorp bakeries does not even begin to deal with the challenges brought by low-wage, low-rights manufacturers. It is cheaper to send fish caught in Canada to China to be deboned and sent back to Canada. 68% of garlic consumed in Canada is grown in China—despite the fact that some Chinese farmers won’t eat their own vegetables thanks to the industrial pollution.

It is incredibly difficult to compete on commodities with globalized labour—but that still doesn’t make us any more resilient, so at the very least we should have a plan. When do you abandon the artisanal? Can you shift to lower-paying but higher-importance goods, or are you just going to stay with the sinking ship?

As I said, I don’t have any answers to this, but a couple of thoughts come to mind:

Dmitry Orlov writes about how, in the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people had very large gardens on the edge of town that were very important to feed the family. The focus was not on producing for sale, it was on subsistence and augmentation.

Similarly, in 1933 Ralph Borsodi, wrote Flight From the City,5 the story of how, in 1920, his family moved to a small farm close to New York City. He explicitly cautioned against trying to make money from your land, and instead taught that we should produce for ourselves in order to avoid spending money. They even wove their own fabric and sewed their own clothes. This is Jane Jacobs’ Import Replacement on a family scale.

Now, all of this self-provender does not pay the rent; you still need to work for dollar bills. But it does short-circuit what Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen called,

…“the circumdrome of the shaving machine”, which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on ad infinitum.

So, I think if relocalization is truly going to be a force for sustainability, we need to be able to provide for daily sustenance instead of opening pop-up shaving machine boutiques. Sure, a new doggie-biscuit bakery keeps dollars revolving in our local economy, but when the economy hits a rough patch, it will be gone—out of business. But the megacorp selling two-dollar loaves of bread will still be vacuuming dollars out of our community, day in and day out, year after year.

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{ 33 comments }

  • Lisa July 21, 2014, 6:38 am

    This must surely be closely linked to what a culture values. I am not certain about recent French agriculture – certainly French farmers I’ve seen on TV have spectacularly large tractors – but as a culture the French appear to value artisanal product, and therefore handmade bread, farm-specific meat etc are affordable due to high market demand.

    I am inclined to think cultural conversation is an essential part of the kind of food and food production we end up with.

    Reply
    • Ruben August 2, 2014, 12:09 am

      I think you are right Lisa, though it seems like a bit of a chicken and egg thing to me.

      We travelled in Europe last summer, and spent a whole month in France. Basically, we could not understand how the economy of the whole continent works. My best theory is that Napoleon sacked Europe and built France, so they don’t need a lot of money for infrastructure anymore—and I am only half joking.

      France has enormous agricultural subsidies, so the bread, wine and cheese are very inexpensive and delicious—which is a great way to maintain the culture of eating French bread, wine and cheese. Which came first?

      We also saw tiny little fields of wheat. In Canada you might need a thousand acres to feed your family, whereas in France it somehow makes sense to grow a wheat field the size of a soccer pitch. How does this make sense? Why does it make sense in France, but not at all in Canada?

      I don’t know, but I do know I loved to picnic in France, and I wish Canada had more of a French attitude.

      Reply
  • Nat July 18, 2014, 10:52 am

    I’ve been thinking about these issues for a while as well – I’m involved in a small urban farm that currently relies on good prices to keep us going. I’m also a big fan of John Michael Greer, and the way I see it is that artisanal prices allow positive reinforcement of particular valuable skills (food growing, making, mending etc) in the current economy – it allows reskilling to happen in a way that gives the practitioner something valuable (money) in return. David Holmgren has written about this, using the work of systems ecologist Howard Odum, in several of his essays, that any behaviour change needs to give tangible benefits to the early adopters or else it doesn’t get adopted widely. In the case of artisinal goods, the benefits are financial (as well as many other non-monetary benefits!) in a world that prioritises money. People like Jean-Martin then get heralded as ‘rock star farmers’ and inspire a new generation (myself included!) to grow food for their local communities. If such positive reinforcement didn’t occur, these systems wouldn’t last long in the current economy, and those skills would not be learnt or shared anywhere near as fast as they are now.

    In the near future, when the financial basis of reinforcement has eroded away to a large extent, there will need to be new feedback paths that don’t involve money – perhaps by customers substituting labour for food, or other services in a barter relationship that benefits both parties. The way I see it, artisinal prices allows the learning to accelerate now, while we still have the money, and will act as a cushion when that money goes away – the skills will still remain. The choice then is not between the $7 loaf of artisinal bread vs. the $2 supermarket pap, but between exchanging your labour/products/skills for local bread, or no bread at all (as Adrienne points out). It is not to say the transition will be easy – as you point out in one of the comments, when will the landlord stop asking for money and accept goods/services instead? But as Odum as noted, successful systems and patterns of behaviour get copied quickly – one landlord decides to take vegetables instead of cash as payment, and other landlords notice that they are now able to put food on the table rather than having to constantly chase up/kick out the renters for non-existant money, and so the new pattern (barter) quickly self-replicates.

    The skills of vegetable production (and many other skills providing essential goods/services) don’t suddenly become irrelevant once the money system stops working – the challenge becomes how to shift the forms of reinforcement/exchange (as Nicole Foss has argued). When people can no longer pay for gourmet baby lettuce mix, the farmer starts growing potatoes and ‘sells’ them in exchange for harvesting labour (and keeps a portion to give to the landlord and their own family). In today’s world, artisinal prices for essential items (dog biscuits notwithstanding!) allows these skills to pass over into tomorrow’s world alive and well.

    Thanks for the article, some very thoughtful reading!

    Reply
    • Ruben July 18, 2014, 5:26 pm

      Thank you for your long and well-considered comment Nat.

      I think you flesh out possible future dynamics nicely. My concern lies mostly in your little sentence, “It is not to say the transition will be easy”. Now, the transition won’t be easy, and maybe there is nothing to do about that, and I should just trust my gut and keep doing what I can.

      But I am obviously worried about this narrative. It has an innocence that reminds me of other times, from William Morris to the back-to-the-landers in the 60s—like if we just follow our bliss back to a medieval craft, everything will work out.

      Now, obviously I am trying to increase all the skills I am worried about here—gardening, baking, hunting, husbandry, meat curing, canning, brewing… But I am pathologically afraid of taking big loans to turn one of these into an artisinal business. That just might be my stuff that I need to deal with.

      So, I agree with everything you are saying—I have been deeply influenced by Greer’s thoughts on preserving skills, traditions and technologies. But I am worried that for many people, transitioning from baby greens to potatoes will simply mean they go bankrupt. The numbers just won’t add up. That is a pretty big thing, hidden in the little sentence, “It is not to say the transition will be easy”.

      And I always have front-of-mind the lessons from both the Archdruid and Stoneleigh that sometimes, no matter how well we plan, we might just not get what we want. We are in turbulent times, and those who make a living off turbulence will be very comfortable. Sadly, that is not my personality.

      Anyhow, thanks again for your comment. I am very pleased so many people have given deep, thoughtful, consideration to this conversation.

      r.

      p.s. Wagtail Farm looks very handsome. Please do check out Jean-Martin’s book. Someone who is in serious production like yourself will find some very valuable information in it.

      Reply
      • Nat July 31, 2014, 4:18 am

        Thanks for the reply Ruben – yes I ordered a copy of JMF’s book before it went to print! Great stuff, and we’re now planning on expanding next year in part based on Jean-Martin’s techniques and his passionate belief that small scale vegetable growing can be commercially viable.

        I agree there is a certain naivete in my assumptions, but turbulent times are very hard to predict/prepare for in detail – as Holmgren, Odum and Greer all argue, in such chaotic circumstances it is better to concentrate on principles that are likely to hold true no matter what (‘people need to eat’ being a good one!), and following the implications that these principles imply. If it turns out that switching from baby salad mix to potatoes sends us market gardeners broke, we can at least provide food for our family if we still have access to land, or teach other people how to do it and receive income from that, or grow food for the new feudal lord etc. etc. – not all equally desirable options, but probably better options than not learning those skills in the first place.

        What I think I’m arguing is that artisinal businesses provide the opportunities and incentives to deeply learn a craft in the current economy (becoming a jack of all trades and a master of one, as Holmgren has noted!), whereas subsistence re-skilling as a hobby runs the risk of always taking a back-seat to the need to pay the rent. When you decide to stake your livelihood on an artisinal skill, there are pretty powerful incentives to learn it well! Having said that, I think all artisinal businesses should evolve from hobbies – learn from the necessary mistakes while you can still subsidise your learning with outside money!

        Reply
        • Ruben August 2, 2014, 12:04 am

          Thanks for expanding your thoughts, Nat. I am glad to hear The Market Gardener is useful for you.

          I agree with everything you are saying. To cut my argument down to its finest point, I think we can be better positioned with a few minor changes. Start a shoe repair business not a shoe making business; become a market gardener on rented land instead of purchased land, etc.

          Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. And please do read the Borsodi book. It is very fun, and he makes great points about providing for the family instead of customers. Cheers.

          Reply
  • Kerrie O'Connor July 17, 2014, 10:13 pm

    Thanks all. Some Australian comments to add to this mind-food discussion: underpinning our past and future is the question of who owns land.
    When a finite resource, essential to everyone in a booming population, becomes a source of speculation – the answer, sooner or later, can only ever be ugly. No tasty short-term profit, even in a boom that benefits a whole generation, can change the answer to that equation. Eventually, humanity has to crunch the numbers. Basic needs, such as a roof over every child’s head, are not best met by the open market. We have seen a return in Sydney to Great Depression slum-rentals, with tenants crammed into tiny spaces. Our traditional market garden land on the urban fringes is being chewed up for housing estates.
    Urban, regional and rural land-sharing cooperatives are in intelligent third way between unchecked profiteering and Stalinist nationalisation. They can balance group benefit with individual autonomy and allow a springboard for members to take part in local resurgent food economies.
    Here’s to secure access to a piece of dirt for everyone on the planet!

    Reply
    • Ruben July 17, 2014, 10:53 pm

      I like where you are going with that, thanks for your thoughts.

      Reply
  • Paul Alaback July 14, 2014, 7:53 pm

    Excellent discussion of some good thought provoking ideas. Another point to consider is that industrialized AG is predicated on a stable climate and exponential economic growth. Localized sustainable AG has a potential niche in being more experimental, better adapted to local areas, bringing diversity to the marketplace. This could be more resilient to environmental stress than large scale AG, or at the very least this diversity could nicely compliment large scale AG as things get more challenging. In my own garden I find that diversity is the best hedge against uncertainty. I think the same could be true for food production generally.

    Reply
    • Ruben July 14, 2014, 8:24 pm

      I think you are absolutely right Paul. John Michael Greer calls this dissensus—consensus is not resilient, diversity is a better strategy.

      The comments on this post have really shown me I need to more carefully state my concern is primarily in the medium-term, if:

      The short-term is the fantasy we are living in.
      The medium-term is when most people understand we have a problem and that things are changing, but we don’t all agree how.
      The long-term when the environmental and economic realities have pushed is into a diverse and local regionalism.

      I agree with all the long-term benefits you and other have raised here, and I also think that is our future—a much more local, simpler, more agrarian life. That will be more resilient to shocks, more responsive to ecosystems, and more satisfying to live in.

      It is the medium-term I am worried about—but maybe I am worrying too much.

      Bread is an easy example: we have a diversity of bakers in all our cities, plus there is a rich history of bread riots, and bakers adultering bread with sawdust and gypsum. So, it is easy for me to imagine tight financial times hitting the artisans hard. They are already trying to pay their staff higher wages, buy better ingredients, work with fewer machines and more labour, and use time instead of industrial chemistry. And so it seems likely to me they could have problems quite early.

      I also think the continental megacorps will be too sensitive to fuel costs, too bureaucratic and lumbering and so not flexible enough as times change.

      This leaves the regional bread factories in a good position—these are the local bakers of $2 supermarket bread. These are the folks that can start mixing in the sawdust to cut costs. :-) But maybe I am giving to much power to the local industrial shops…

      Maybe I am underestimating the brittleness of the regional chains. Again, they rely heavily on fuel, for their trucks, but also for their supply chain of grain and industrial chemicals. They rely on big industrial building space, and the whole credit and financing of modern big business. They rely on the big supermarkets, and those could be having a lot of problems themselves.

      So, I don’t know. My gut says in the medium-term, the biggest and the smallest will have the most problems, while the long-term will truly be the time of the local and artisinal. But, maybe I am reading the tea leaves wrong. I am sure grateful for the conversation that is happening here.

      Reply
  • G July 14, 2014, 1:44 pm

    While I agree with the bulk of the article – I just wanted to point out that local producers are not charging $8 a loaf so that they can live a middle class life. In many cases, they are charging that to earn a low income wage, often being supported by partners with better jobs. Those prices do not reflect a demand for a comfortable lifestyle, but breaking even and paying their basic bills.

    Reply
    • Ruben July 14, 2014, 6:17 pm

      Yes, I certainly don’t know any localists that are living extravagant lifestyles. But I do know some well-established folks—bakers, farmers and brewers—who have been able to buy a house and take vacations in amongst their hard and constant labour. I think it is fair to say they are middle class.

      But yes, I think the high prices we see at the farmers market generally represent the true costs of a subsistence lifestyle. Most of these folks are doing this because they love it, not because they have hopes of great wealth. This is just what quality actually costs.

      But my fear is that even at their low wages, the money may not be there to pay their bills in the medium-term. As Stoneleigh at The Automatic Earth says:

      It is not that people will no longer want commodities, or many other goods and services, but that they will not be able to afford them in anything like the previous quantity. Demand is not what one wants, but what one is ready, willing and able to pay for. For a time, supply will be geared to the previous level of demand, leaving a substantial surplus that should weigh on prices for a significant period of time.

      The odds of people being able to pay what they once could for commodities under such circumstances are effectively nil. It is as if we were playing a giant game of musical chairs, where there is only one chair for every hundred people playing the game. When the music stops, most will be out of the ‘game’ after a short but chaotic wealth grab.

      Here is a great interview with Stoneleigh at Resilience.org

      I wrote about John Michael Greer’s thoughts on this dynamic in Britain loses the potter’s wheel.

      So I absolutely agree that no one is trying to get rich off this stuff. But I worry that even at subsistence wages, there is no guarantee many of our local businesses will make it through the medium-term unless the can provide for true needs. It is easy to look at bag of baby salad greens and say it is food, and everybody needs to eat, so farmers have a great future. But as long as I have a small patch of ground I can grow lettuce—what I need from the farmer is the field cabbage to get my family through the winter. If a farmer can make the business case work by running the numbers on the conventional price of cabbage, then I think they are in a very strong place.

      That was a big answer for your simple comment—which I agree with. This is just what quality costs, and it still does not pay well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      Reply
  • LLaiRy July 14, 2014, 1:08 pm

    Ruben,

    You point out a very interesting part of the actual reality, showing that most of the “local producers” are standard for-profit financialized companies and the pitfalls of it. The consequences you mention are correct as well and bring up what it seems to be the right fondamental question : what is value? But then, facing that question, the challenge is to provide an answer which would be not too radical and not prompt to dehumanization. Seems at least a tough task. It might be simpler than it looks.

    Let’s have a try with the bread case you mention. How factory bleached flour sliced bread could be competitive in any economy? Last thread got it : by counting on lack of skill, knowledge of hungry people. There it is, we know basicly what value is.

    Here would lie the solution for the future. Somehow, we should have to start sharing knowledge and building skills without trying to get rich doing it.

    It makes Jean-Martin and Eliot realistic and honest persons.

    Keep it up!

    Reply
    • Ruben July 14, 2014, 5:57 pm

      Thanks for you comment. I agree Jean-Martin and Eliot are realistic and honest. And foresightful and smart and hard-working.

      When I think of important work for the future, farming is top of the list, and these two are really innovating—bringing the best of our modern age, science and knowledge to farm. Actually, now that I say that, I think it is very interesting. These two are very educated, very informed on modern agricultural science. It is interesting to see how the best response they think they can develop involves so much hand labour.

      I wonder what our world would look like if their principles were applied to other production?

      But another thing Jean-Martin and Eliot were able to do is buy land at a good price, which many of the newer generation of farmers—and especially urban farmers—are unable to do.

      So, my concerns for reliable future cash-flow for high-end goods suggest that new farmers should think very carefully about renting instead of buying. That really hurts me—we were evicted last fall so the owner could sell the place. We have a lot of gear—jars of food and canning kettles, a cider press, a smoker, rabbits and bees. It would be very, very nice to feel the “security” of owning our own place.

      Reply
  • Ocean July 12, 2014, 5:52 pm

    ha! I bought some Dayton’s too. When I was living in Hastings Sunrise. Walked on over and ordered a pair of Rebels with custom specs. (taller for bicycle riding in rain). The cost was still far below MOST other non-local brands. Plus these boots and a grey woolen Stanfield’s earn me mad respect in rural BC. I feel confident that cobblers will exist when it all crumbles. Perhaps no one will buy our pints of berries, but we can sustain ourselves and barter out garden bounty, and foraging wealth for things we need. That is my plan. Learning to do it myself to the level of mastery that suits my snobby tastes. These Dayton’s have bushwhacked all over Bella Coola in estuary, forest and riverbed. They keep my feet dry and hardly show wear. Bless the small and local, long may they thrive!

    Reply
    • Ruben July 12, 2014, 7:24 pm

      Yeah, I share the goal of trying to build valuable mastery—and along with it comes the delicious part of the Small and Delicious Life.

      I don’t think cobblers have a great short-term future, though. Shoe repair yes, shoe making, no. I think we will continue to get the occasional container ship of cheaper goods from China for many decades to come.

      So, for me, trying to figure out the transitional time is the hard part. How to pay the rent when the landlords haven’t accepted they are charging too much, and the jobs are few and far between? I am pretty good at preserving food, making things, and can even sew quite well. But the barter is limited by the landlord’s desire for cash.

      I have made shoes and sandals, and am sure I can make a nice pair of boots. i just don’t think there will be a market for these sorts of artisinal goods for long. It is important the skills not vanish in the transition, but I don’t think it going to help me pay the rent.

      Sharon Raymond has a introductory book on how to make shoes. Most of them would not satisfy the snobby tastes, but I was impressed when I saw this picture:
      Shoe photo from Sierra Leone | Simple Shoemaking Shop

      Reply
  • Adrienne Adams July 11, 2014, 5:58 pm

    You are correct that, right now, “most of us localists are still parasites on globalization.” Right now, the market for $8 bread and $10 ice cream is based on urbanites with disposable income. But the next financial crisis is likely to be in large part caused by huge spikes in energy costs. (Gail Tverberg, over at http://ourfiniteworld.com, writes extensively about the connection between the economy and energy.) When energy becomes more expensive, the competitive edge that global has over local will shrink—and globalization itself will become less viable.

    Supermarkets have very long and fragile supply lines, and are totally dependent upon (cheap!) oil for transportation. Likewise production of industrial food, clothing, and all other basic necessities. The hype over shale gas and tight oil have so far masked the essential signal, but the fact is that we are quickly running out of cheap oil. What you said about the Depression is true for oil: there will be oil around for a long time, but soon we won’t be able to afford it, and prices for all essentials will go very high. What happens then?

    In any energy cost crisis, the supermarkets will not be able to keep the lights on and the shelves stocked, not only because of the disruption of supply but because they run on such thin margins. I propose that $2 bread cannot exist in a high-cost energy world.

    At this point, local “artisanal” production facilities may well become essential to community survival. When there’s no $2 supermarket bread to be had, the local bakery has the ovens and expertise to make bread. A local farmer that has invested in a grain mill might be be the only source of flour once the big mills shut down for lack of affordable fuel. Local commercial food kitchens will be places that urban gardeners can pool their harvest for processing. Local cheese makers, likewise. We’re looking not only at local expertise, but local production facilities as essential once globalization begins to break down.

    Looking beyond food, we need not only the woodworker’s or metalworker’s expertise, but his or her shop for building, maintaining, and fixing tools and equipment. This is where local artisans really function as reservoirs of resilience. Anyone who can grow, make or fix will likely eat; but those who can do so on a scale that supplies a surplus for the community at large will be the ones that ensure the continuation of civilization.

    Reply
    • Ruben July 12, 2014, 7:30 pm

      I agree with you 100% Adrienne, thank you for reading and commenting.

      My main worry is the transition time. I buy into John Michael Greer’s idea of The Long Descent—a stairstep decline into crappiness. As we see now, as energy gets more expensive, we do all we can to maintain our lifestyles. I don’t foresee a fast crash that will knock us back into localism.

      As you say, $2 bread cannot exist in a high-energy-cost world. But I think it is likely it will take us years or decades to get to that world. So, now we have artisinal for the few, and in the future we will have artisinal as subsistence—but in the intervening years I think it could get pretty hardscrabble.

      Reply
      • Adrienne Adams July 13, 2014, 6:32 pm

        I’ve been reading quite a bit of JMG lately as well, and I agree that the decline of fossil-fuel civilization at large will likely take decades or even centuries. But there is one certain thing we know about the future: we don’t know what will happen. I fully expect severe economic and energy shocks in the short-term, and yes things are definitely going to be hardscrabble! The Powers-That-Be are working hard to ensure that the elite have access to everything they need, enforceable by militarized civilian police forces (I’m sure you are seeing that in Canada too…). But I don’t think that governments have nearly as much control over things as they would like to believe, and localized crises can have cascading effects. Plus we now have a situation where more and more of the citizenry are feeling disenfranchised and marginalized, who cannot be counted on to “keep calm and carry on” if the SHTF. We can definitely have a “fast crash” on a short-term, local scale!

        But as you replied to @Ocean above, the pressing issue is the short-term, and what we’ll all do for cash. There are several developing scenarios that make for some sleepless nights:

        –We’re poised for more asset bubble-popping. There’s not nearly enough real productivity to support the kind of speculation and yield-chasing that is happening. Expect this sooner rather than later.
        –Debt levels are unsupportable, for the same reason of lack of actual productivity.
        –Very low to negative growth rates = deflation, low demand, falling prices. The stuff of nightmares to Wall Street.
        –Oil is becoming extremely costly to produce, and if deflation sets in prices will fall to below the cost of production. (How long can that last?)
        –Our consumer culture is cracking. This is having a huge impact on China…

        I am not at all sanguine about China. They are propping up their economy with truly massive amounts of debt, hoping that things will turn around here in the US and folks will start maxing out the credit cards again. If that doesn’t happen, China will have to start closing factories and sending people back to the countryside to grow food—except in the past decade, China has been busily paving over and polluting its farmland. Not a pretty picture for that long-suffering land, and one that might well preclude those container ships—unless they’re coming empty, to fill up with relief corn and soy from Kansas.

        These scenarios revolve around tightly linked systems, so knock-on effects are to be expected. As for the rent question, it’s interesting to note how many banks are letting people live in their foreclosed houses. More communities are blocking banks from abandoning foreclosed properties. If enough people get thrown into the streets, we may see a rebellion against the rentier class, more squatting, etc. Deflation and real estate bubble-popping will likely make the rent story much more interesting.

        In the end, it’s important for me to realize that people are resilient, and that we often can figure stuff out when the need arises. Localism gets us in the mindset to be flexible and creative, which is what we’ll need to be in order to navigate this very uncertain future.

        Reply
        • Ruben July 14, 2014, 5:49 pm

          You really nailed it here, Adrienne.

          Your thoughts on foreclosures are very interesting. In 2008, I was part of a group that was wanting to buy an apartment building to own as a co-op. I thought if the real-estate collapse spread, we would just have to live through the first wave of foreclosures, because surely there would be a surge of anti-bank rebellion.

          Here in Canada we are still inflating our real estate bubble, so this won’t end well.:-)

          And as you say, there are some very heartening stories of sheriffs and judges refusing to put people out on the street—but we didn’t see a broad rebellion, even with millions of homes underwater. Maybe in the next waves of foreclosures… (though there has been so little punishment for banks and bankers it is hard to imagine where this rebellion will come from)

          I think your last point sums up why my family and I are engaged in the Small and Delicious Life—the future is uncertain, so it helps to have a bunch of diverse skills, and the ability to find joy in hard times. And the side-effect of this lifestyle is a rich and meaningful participation with the ecosphere and our community.

          I often marvel at how much salt my labour adds to the meal. By that I mean I deeply appreciate the simplest things because we grew them and preserved them. I feel sorry for the people who are going out the latest trend fine-dining, because, for all their taste-buds may dance, they cannot know the umami of meaning and connection.

          And I mourn for all of us. Our great-grandparents lived in a constant state of this rich experience. Sure, it was hard, dirty, crappy and dangerous, but because of that their ham and beans may have tasted better than any meal I have every had.

          I don’t know. I feel like I am rambling now. I do know that I am happier than I have ever been, and if I feel that way from the little bit that we do, imagine how it would have felt to have a whole life connected to a community of producers.

          Reply
      • Adrienne Adams July 13, 2014, 6:33 pm

        P.S. Thanks so much for your blog… I loved last week’s post on pre-grated cheese :-D

        Reply
        • Ruben July 14, 2014, 5:25 pm

          Thank you Adrienne. Your comments here are really helping me articulate my thinking more clearly. I am glad you like the blog!

          Reply
  • c. July 10, 2014, 5:55 pm

    The landlords will always be taking cash, gold or something of larger value in exchange for rent. They still have to pay the tax man, the bank, etc.

    I have family that made it into the slim category of plumber plus general maintenece that allowed him (with extended family crowded in) to live rent free during the great depression. He says his was one of two units in three or four 12 unit buildings he maintained that was allowed to barter for rent. He passed away a few years ago otherwise I’d be asking him more questions now that I have a better idea of what is to come.

    I rent out a spare room and I’ve had people attempt to barter for rent either repair or cleaning etc. They do such a poor job and leave me more work than I started with that it’s not worth it to me. Maybe down the line and maybe if someone has something of value to actually provide. I’ve found modern day skill sets so very poor in quality I can do a better job myself even if it is the first time I’m attempting to do it.

    If it were me I would either work very hard at getting really good at something people actually need or a few somethings so you have quaility to offer or figure out how to get paid for that skill as I would not count on landlords having as much willingness to barter as you might think. Yes, I am taking my own advice in my spare time.

    Reply
  • Ruben July 9, 2014, 7:09 pm

    In the magic way of the internets, this just in…

    Hipster Finds Lifestyle Too Expensive, Reverts Back to Mainstream

    Reply
  • Lawrence July 8, 2014, 7:41 pm

    While I tend to agree with you on most parts of this, I think there is a misconception that “doing what we love” and “making artisanal goods” isn’t repetitive and is never boring.

    Whoops. I’m not supposed to say that. Shhhh.

    I’m very compelled by Adam Smith’s Labour theory of value. I know, it’s old stock, I know it’s stuffy, I know people has exposed it for a myriad of shortcomings. But it’s simple. And it fits. And it encourages excellence and spending time with your processes. And I’d argue it’s quite sustainable.

    We’re trucking through an order of 300+ jerseys and jackets right now, which we discount for volume. Manfred Max-Neef tells a nice story of a Chilean chair carver who charges more by volume because it’s boring to do repetitive work, but I digress.

    There is a longer conversation about “what is value” than this comment box can sustain, but the distinction between megacorps and artisans needs least to be concerned about how bored someone is. The compelling aspects are how egalitarian it is, how safe it is, how adaptable it is and how reliable it is – or isn’t.

    Back to Mr. Smith, adaptability and sustainability. What’s going to be the greater driving force in a contracted economy? The fact that people may not have the disposable income to buy $11 pints of ice cream, or the fact that the artisan won’t find value nor the time needed to make $11 pints of ice cream. Sure, they’re somewhat hand in hand, but I’d say the latter will be much more compelling, The artisan will have adapted to do more important things, but ice cream will still come, it just may be scooped out of full chest freezers, like in Cuba.

    Reply
    • Ruben July 8, 2014, 8:01 pm

      Very interesting points, Lawrence. And Max Neef is kicking doors and taking names, once again.

      I read wikipedia’s entry on the Labour Theory of Value, but I don’t totally get it. If this comment box is too small, maybe you should expand your thoughts, and we can have a web conversation. Or a podcast or something.

      Interesting question about the future decline of ice cream. I tend to think what will decline first is the quality. I think we will be willing to give up organic milk for conventional, fresh eggs for powdered—as long as we can still have that icy cold cone on a hot day.

      An interesting difference between even artisinal work and the solf-provisioning work such as Borsodi writes about, as you say is boredom.

      So, a factory worker spends almost all their time bored. An artisan may spend 75% of their time bored—there are many repetitious tasks to purchase, prepare, manufacture, market and ship. But a change is as good as a rest—you should tell us how much of your time is spent in boring work.

      Whereas the self-provisioner—the small farmer—has incredible variety that repeats on a yearly cycle. Every year I am going to have a week of canning tomatoes. I play music, I listen to the radio, I talk deep thoughts with my wife, but it is still boring and crappy. But when it is over, it is 51 weeks until I have to do it again. Lots of food tasks are on a yearly cycle—cultivating, planting, harvesting, preserving. Making cider and salami. Others are on a weekly scale, like baking bread or weeding.

      Daily tasks like feeding the rabbits are more of a pain. I sure have no desire to have milk animals, even though I would love to have cheese.

      Ideally, mastery will increase the boredom of each task, as challenge and fear are eliminated. But the daily variety is very great.

      Anyhow, thanks for chiming in. Your perspective would be super valuable to a lot of folks, I think, should you want to go into more detail.

      Reply
      • Lawrence July 9, 2014, 2:11 am

        What the Labour Theory of Value (LTR) is as an economic theory and what it is to me are two different things. I’m far from fully understanding many of these concepts myself, but, hey, we’re all learning.

        My appreciation toward LTV is that labour is the primary determinant in the price of a good. The “toil and trouble” of labour. But I don’t get too hung up on the strict theory vs the day-to-day importance in my life as a principle.

        Where it’s important is that I feel confident that I can say that in today’s globalized megacorp, mass production model, labour is totally devalued, and utility has been perverted. Nitzan’s Power theory?

        The world I want and what I believe is that labour is the truest form of value. If we talk about contracting economies then I believe conversations about guilds, societies, co-ops and barter/trade will follow, some of the more important aspects of Mutualism.

        I fear that current artisanal goods, or the artisanal trend can sometimes miss the mark in that yes, people want to be paid well for doing (labour) the thing they love, but they also want to be paid additionally and excessively for many other things, those same things that Apple uses, or Adidas, or some fair trade/organic Mega-corp uses. Those things once were a builders’ reputation and mastery and now they are just “brand.” Brands are now more concerned with the influence the social media strategy has on price/value than time, resources, labour or utility. Exploitative labour markets have shown this in spades, they’ve rendered construction time nearly moot because hourly wages are slave-level low, or worse. Imagine the effect of a garment feature/detail that takes 10 minutes to sew on our profitability vs the same feature made in China. Now, imagine 3 or 5 of those or similar features! The current economic model survives on breaking Adam Smith’s LTV.

        In your piece you wrote: “We need all these rich urbanites to buy our hand-crafted goods and lovingly harvested veggies.” and ask “How resilient is this localism? How much change can these businesses withstand?”

        I’d argue that depends on where the core value is coming from. People will need wool clothing to stay warm and Dayton boots to last decades during the downtimes, post petroleum. And individuals will buy or trade for those things based on the labour, the “toil and trouble” that went into those items, or the “toik and trouble” they’ve exchanged (Hoodies for Chorizo). The economies that exist will exist on more than just financial exchange and me getting my bucks from rich urbanites. And maybe our exact works will adapt out of the niche toward more direct necessity, but to do so it need be built on the foundation of utility and value. Thise processes are trending toward “apocalypse-ready” you might say.

        But will $11 ice cream survive? $4 toast? Will many of the products that may undermine their own value by charging the bulk of their asking price for the ephemeral qualities and the lesser for the labour and utility? I doubt they will.

        Reply
        • Ruben July 9, 2014, 2:41 am

          Very interesting again, Lawrence. I love the insight you have—from actually doing the work, day in and day out.

          You are forcing me to state my assumptions more clearly:

          ∙I think the economy will contract significantly within our lifetime, though it may go up and down, the trend will be down.
          ∙Price correction always lags reality, so it will be months or years before my rent reflects my employment opportunities.
          ∙Lifestyle correction always lags reality. People will tend to use debt to maintain their lifestyle, and then I think they will degrade quality. Artisinal bread will become supermarket bread and artisinal ice cream will become industrial ice cream long before people will give up ice cream altogether.
          ∙It is hard to make good value choices when you are broke. This is why poor people eat crappy food and drive crappy cars. Sure ten dollars can buy a lot of rice and beans, and five dollars can buy you one fast food meal. But if you simply do not have ten dollars…

          This is why I think shoe repair will have a booming future, but shoe making will not be mainstream for decades or more. I think we will be getting container loads of cheap and crappy shoes from China for a long, long time…

          I agree there will be more opportunities for barter, but I think that will lag reality as well. I expect there will be several tight years scraping together the rent before I will have a landlord that will accept barter as payment.

          I think it is the this lag that causes me the most stress about the future.

          Your views on labour are very interesting, and I think I agree. John Michael Greer wrote a whole series on economics that was quite enjoyable—based off Schumacher. Here are a couple of links.

          The Archdruid Report: The Wealth of Nature

          E.F. Schumacher’s insight, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods, thus needs to be extended further. There is also a primary and secondary economy. The cycles of nature that produce goods needed by human beings constitute the primary economy, while the process by which human beings produce goods is the secondary economy. The secondary economy depends utterly on the primary in at least two ways. First, as discussed last week, something like three-quarters of all economic value in today’s world is produced by nature – that is, by the primary economy – and only around a quarter is produced by human labor.

          The Archdruid Report: Nature, Wealth, and Money

          Reply
          • Caroline Cooper July 15, 2014, 5:23 pm

            This is my first visit to your website. I really enjoyed your presentation on the Top Ten Myths of Behavior Change. You got that right! Logical arguments and facts have little traction against deeply held believes.

            You mention not really getting the cost theory of value. The Austrian economists think that the cost theory of value was overturned by the subjective value theory. Take a look here for more information: http://mises.org/daily/5297/Problems-with-the-Cost-Theory-of-Value.

            Reply
            • Ruben July 16, 2014, 5:08 pm

              I am glad you liked the Top Ten Myths, Caroline. Please do check out at least my essay, and maybe the slidecast on Compassionate Systems. You will see I develop one of the ideas in the Top Ten Myths in a way I think is significantly more important to our work today.

              And thanks for the link to the Cost Theory of Value. For those that are following along at home, here is a link to the next article on Subjective-Value Theory.

              Reply
  • Sarah C. July 8, 2014, 11:32 am

    Wow! You really hit the nail on the head.

    I think a positive outcome of the local movement is that folks will have skills they can use when the economy tanks so they can be more self-sufficient. They won’t have to go to the store. They will be able to feed themselves and possibly their neighbors, though no one gets rich being a good neighbor.

    Reply
    • Ruben July 8, 2014, 6:35 pm

      Glad you liked this, Sarah.

      Since you are into this urban homesteading stuff too, let’s talk a little more detail.

      As I said in the article, I see a very well-heeled strain of localism. These are the folks that make good money at their jobs and like to enjoy the latest restaurants, cocktails and fashion designers. My experience about these folks, though, is that it is primarily an identity statement, without actually being a very large part of their life.

      So they will order dinner with the local garnish, and buy a bag or shirt that is from a local crafter. But their lives are still very mainstream consumerist—cars, the Gap, Costco.

      Then I see folks that are actually localists. They shop local as much as they possible can. I think this is mostly about community strength, jobs, and social justice.

      And lastly, the DIYers, pretty self-explanatory.

      I am a hearty mix of the last two, and I am interested in the blend of community and family resilience.

      Like you, I think we are at a stage in which just about any DIY skill is a good thing, even if that particular skill has no future. The other day I described our culture as a relentless destroyer of skill. I don’t know what we think we will do–just slosh around in our bags of skin, I guess, as machines and apps and services and consultants live for us. So, I think giving people the notion that they are actually capable of doing something physical in the world is a good thing.

      I am working with a local community centre, looking at starting sort of a Skill School. I am not worrying too much about New Times Ready all the skills are—just feeling capable seems like the most important thing.

      Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t read that Borsodi book, do check it out—it was really neat.

      r.

      Reply
      • Sarah C. July 9, 2014, 2:06 am

        A relentless destroyer of skill…I couldnt agree more. Society as a whole frowns when we make our own bread and its not just for the dinner party, or when we (godforbid) plant edible foods in our front yards. My own parents think that we are suffering financially because I am choosing to put up as much of my own food as possible – am I okay? Dont even get me started on my state government and its restriction on the food I can sell to my community. Like I am really going to poison my neighbor….

        I am not really a prepper. I dont have 20 pounds of beans and rice stored in my garage (nor in my bugout location!) but feel that stocking up on skills is the best way to hedge my bets in good times and bad.

        Thanks for the book recommendation. I will definitely check it out.

        Reply

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