“Well, should we just give up then?”

If only I had a dollar for every time I have heard this, always from well-meaning people. It is all too common if you talk about climate change, constraints on energy and mineral resources, or the erosion of social cohesion in our complex and overpopulated world. In other words, it is common if you insist on bringing reality into the conversation.

Our faith that progress is an arrow pointed ever upwards is a hard one to let go of—and we think of our save-the-planet work the same way—ever upwards, the best it has ever been, unquestionable.

But I say if what you are doing doesn’t work, it may be that you don’t need to do it Bigger! Faster! and Harder!

Maybe it just doesn’t work.
Maybe we need to do something different.

So the next response, “You want us to live in caves.” Obviously. Because different equals caves.

I don’t want to live in a cave. In fact, I want to live in a Jetsonian future in which our wondrous technology has liberated us from work while eliminating environmental impact, allowing us to truly find our place in the ecosphere alongside the splendiferous flora and fauna from tiny to titanic. I could be free to pursue something I am actually good at, like designing things.

But if you can stick with reality long enough, you start to realize that living in caves is a plausible, if undesirable outcome, whereas the likelihood of a Jetsonian utopia is that small speck you see disappearing over the horizon.

To review, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for millions of years, and we are well past the Paris Agreement target of 350 parts per million. Anybody who can bear to look at a chart of the global energy mix can see that renewables are not going to replace fossil fuels, even if we do have the resources, energy and social will to divert significant portions of our focus to windmills and solar panels. Which we don’t.

Add on to this an evergrowing population, many of whom are quite rightly pissed off at the level of exploitation their people and resources have experienced. They would like a piece of the pie, and are getting more aggressive about taking it.

Meanwhile, perhaps thanks to climate chaos, the breadbaskets of agriculture are facing persistent drought, while simultaneously being constrained by suburbia.

Our fragmentation of the biosphere is doing plants and animals no good as extinction rates are reaching asteroid-impact levels.

 

Living in a cave starts to seem like a pretty reasonable response. So should we just give up, then?

No. Giving up is not reasonable. But my father quotes an old hippie saying, “When what you’re doing isn’t working, try anything else.”

And I agree, though I think we can narrow “anything” down quite a bit.

There are three practical things I always suggest—walkable communities, well-insulated homes, and local food.

Our future is going to be much less fossil-fueled, either because we actually choose to stop killing ourselves with oil, or because the disruptions to the ecosphere—the primary source of wealth—finally impact the economy so drastically that we end up in a Greatest Recession. Either way, that is going to mean colder homes and fewer cars.

This will also impact the ridiculously energy-intensive industrialized agriculture system we have now, with huge satellite-controlled tractors, trucks, planes, and climate-controlled storage warehouses.

 

To those three practical things I would add a fourth activity, less palatable for the solutions-oriented crowd—grieving.

Grieving is a skill we have ostracized in North America, and yet there may be no skill that will be in more demand. Foreshadowed by the images coming from drought-torn Syria, the famine building in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, or by nations slowly disappearing beneath rising sea level, we will see a lot of death and loss.

Extreme weather is becoming more common even here in North America, with events that already sound positively apocalyptic. Again, people will die. Homes and memories will be lost, livelihoods destroyed.

And that is just if it doesn’t get any worse.

Despite our best attempts to banish unpleasantness we actually do have faint memories of how to grieve for those people and places we love. I think the worst pain we may face will be from our loss of progress, our loss of the promise that the future will keep getting better.

There is no brighter future.

It is enough to make you wonder if you have done anything worthwhile with your life; and that question does not feel good for anybody.

Anyhow, there is plenty to do, and none of it requires living in caves.

 

There is one more consideration I would like to ask you to keep in the front of your mind. We don’t have a lot of time, and we have fewer resources.

It would be really great if we didn’t waste them. 

So, I like to think about failure. There is an example I heard once—it was a joke actually, from a time when internet memes were shared as email footers.

It said, “When an escalator breaks down, you still have stairs.”

An escalator is failsafe; it fails-safe. It fails-useful.

Compare this to an elevator. An elevator fails-dangerous—it is useless, maybe even a deathtrap.

As we become ever more frantic to fix the predicaments we have created, we will grasp on ever more wild-eyed schemes.

So how will they fail?

 

The failure of one small farm among thousands is not severe, whereas the failure of GMO crops could impact millions of tonnes of food. The whizbang vertical farms will pour millions of dollars down the drain when they fail. Globalized food systems require multiple systems to not fail—finance, legal, shipping, maybe refrigeration.

An elevator becomes a useless box. But without an elevator, our glittering towers also become useless boxes since few people can climb above four or five floors. Imagine a time of cascading failure, and think of all the concrete, steel and glass wasting away in the sky. Think of all the carbon embedded in all that material, all of the lives spent building these sparkling follies.

As failures cascade, we will weep to see our electric cars immobilized, the asphalt cracking from age on roads travelled mostly by people walking and riding bikes. So much steel, so much aluminum. So many batteries and computer chips. The breakdown of our Space Age fantasy of electric cars will strand incredible assets and waste the embedded energy and labour.

Yet a walkable community remains walkable.

If the heater in a super-insulated house fails, you are still warm.

When your bean crop withers, step to the next row and console yourself with a fresh carrot.

 

Maybe I will offer one more bit of advice for our sunset years. Again, not mine, but not an email footer either. It comes from my friend J.B. MacKinnon, who counselled me, “Drink enough Scotch, but not too much.”

 

 

{ 17 comments }

Sustainable means able to be sustained, and the alternative, then, is things that are unable to be sustained.

What part of unable to continue suggests we continue right down the same path? It is like my whole culture is gaslighting me because I feel so crazy.

Putting a finer point on it, I have long been a critic of vertical farms, most recently in Vertical farms: the greatest hope for cities, or a band-aid on a sucking chest wound? 

Salon also posted Enough with the vertical farming fantasies: There are still too many unanswered questions about the trendy practice.

But over at TreeHugger today, the tireless Lloyd Alter gives vertical farms a little love after nearly a decade of criticism, with I was wrong about vertical farms; Aerofarms shows how to make them really work.

 

Aerofarms has apparently avoided many of the things Lloyd has criticized in the past: the farm is in an abandoned factory, the growing racks are stacked very high to get more square footage, the plants are grown hydroponically in a fabric medium so consumption of nutrients and water can be tightly controlled to eliminate waste, and LED lighting is used that can be tuned to the specific colours the plants need for optimal photosynthesis, thus reducing energy use.

Aerofarms is a classic Less Bad is not Necessarily Good solution, in which efficiency serves to distract from the finitude of our planet.

Falling from 500 feet may be “less bad” than falling from 1000 feet, but you are still dead momentarily after impact. 

Today, we spend 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food. Efficiency might allow you to use eight calories of energy to produce one calorie of food, but you are still losing net energy at a shocking rate. It is Not Good.

Before fossil-fueled farming, it was easy to see which farmers used more energy than they produced—they were the dead ones. With only their own or their animals’ muscles to power a farm, the chain of cause and effect was very direct.

In Salon, Stan Cox calculates:

producing America’s annual vegetable crop (not counting potatoes) in vertical systems under lights would require well over half of the electricity this country generates every year, and that would crank out 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions per year.

Half of the electricity?! Hey, let’s be generous and assume they can double efficiency! Then it will only take ONE-QUARTER of all the energy used in the United States. And that is before we “succeed” in electrifying transportation and heating and cooling, thus radically increasing demand for electricity.

Which quarter of your energy use are you going to give up? Oh, you don’t want to give anything up? All right, I guess we need to increase capacity by 25%…

So, just a quick check-in on the facts:

  • The US energy mix is 90% non-renewable, while globally, energy used is 80% non-renewable. Replacing that energy with renewables is going to be a significant challenge—a challenge many analysts characterize as impossible.
  • Various IPCC reports and international accords agree Greenhouse Gases need to be cut sharply and very soon. 80% reductions by 2050 is one common target.
  • Even still, these 80% reductions are widely seen as inadequate to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • James Hansen predicts a sea level rise of several meters in the next 50-150 years. His position is controversial, but he has a history of conservative conclusions.

Given these facts, let me sketch some vertical farm scenarios regarding the electricity used to power the lights, pumps and filters, and whatever CO2 producing devices they are enriching the atmosphere with:

Dark Green Reality
In this scenario, let’s assume we look at whole systems and determine the most important response to climate change is to radically slash material and energy use. Energy is allocated with great care to only the most important tasks, like the digital archiving of certain very valuable research texts, powering infant incubators, and very small amounts of pumping and other services.

Since sunlight falls on fields for free, it is immediately obvious that generating electricity to power lightbulbs to grow salad is a fool’s choice. Humans choose a more local and seasonal life, following and obeying the rhythms of nature. Birds chirp in every tree.

Bright Green Utopia
The electrification of the ‘developed’ world accelerates, with champagne corks popped for every new Tesla model. The developing world follows, with electric cars, air conditioners, televisions, light bulbs and computers reaching billions more people then ever before.

To power all this requires damming every trickle of water on the planet, while resource extraction and manufacturing for solar panels and windmills still need huge amounts of fossil fuels. Coal plants stay online to cope with differences between demand and renewable supply (caused whenever the sun goes down), and there is a huge surge in (non-renewable) nuclear power development. The downwind pollution from nuclear reactors and fuel mining continues to cause cancers and birth abnormalities, and the spent fuel continues to have no place to be safely stored for the lifetime of the danger. It takes a century, but Aerofarms factory is washed away by rising sea levels.

Hell in a Handbasket
Increasing climate chaos activates human lizard brains at a mass scale, causing people to double down in a hedonistic fuck-it—a sort of perpetual Black Friday riot. All of this consumption requires massive amounts of electricity, so coal plants are spun up to maximum and construction starts on dozens of nuclear plants, as well as fuel mining and processing plants.

Global average temperature soars, ice caps suffer catastrophic melt raising sea levels dozens of feet within decades, not centuries. One billion people are displaced and massive urban areas including New York City and Mumbai are inundated. Aerofarms original location is washed away.

Business as Usual
On our current trajectory, BAU is not wildly different from the Hell in a Handbasket scenario.

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There is no way to make vertical farms good. Neither our current model of transporting food great distances nor vertical farms are good responses to overpopulation and urban concentration. Maybe they are less bad. Maybe.

The public discourse, politicians, academics, journalists, scientists, most seem to be blithely washed along in the flood of business-as-usual. The plan—the actual policy—seems to be hoping a knight in shining armour will ride in to save us. This is enormously frustrating for me.

“Would you like to get kicked in both knees, or just one knee?”

“Erm…. I would like to not be kicked at all…”

We are talking about systems that rely on non-renewable resources, and are therefore impossible to sustain. The immutable forces here are the laws of nature. If our agriculture is not sustainable, that means it will not be sustained. That means it will end. That means people cannot eat it.

Less Bad is slow death.

But it is true, talking about what is Less Bad and what is Good obscures the reality of the situation a little.

The challenge is that while Less Bad is slow death, Good is increasingly looking like different death, at least in the short term. We show no sign of voluntarily realigning our society and our culture to follow the laws of nature. Rather, we continue to throw energy, materials and technology at problems. This makes a reckoning inevitable, and it is hard to see how an involuntary reduction in population can be avoided. It sure looks like truly sustainable agricultural practices that could feed humanity will only be widely adopted when we have exhausted all of our Less Bad options.

Now, slowing bleeding is always a good idea, but we are way past the cut and scrape stage. When medics perform triage after a catastrophe, they leave some people bleeding because they have no hope of survival and the bandages and personnel are needed for people who might live.

So, should we focus time and attention on infrastructure that, as these rough scenarios show, cannot endure? Personally, I try to work for things that are Good.

Which is not vertical farming.

 

{ 10 comments }

We have enough Ideas (or, No pie for you.)

Why are we not winning the fight against climate chaos? Why was Trump just elected? Why has there been a slaughter of drug addicts this year?

Because we think about change wrong, and so our efforts are often wasted.

Three things are needed to make change;  we need three capacities. We need the Technical capacity, the Material Capacity, and the Social capacity. Let me explain:

If you have a recipe for apple pie, and some sort of an oven or other way to concentrate heat, you have the technical capacity to bake a pie.

If you have apples and flour and sugar and butter and pinch of cinnamon you have the material capacity to bake a pie.

And if you have someone who is willing to cut butter into flour, slice apples and wait around while the pie bakes, you have the social capacity to bake a pie.

If you lack any one of these three, there will be no pie. Pie will be impossible. You cannot have pie.

Technical capacity

Ideas are technical capacity. A vision. A map. A programming language. A recipe. All of the necessary technics to realize the idea are also part of the technical capacity—a factory with all its fabricating machines and finishing systems, handling units, air or water cleaning systems.
Distribution systems might be thought of as part of technical capacity.

For some simple changes, the idea may be the only technical capacity you need, but for more complex change, you may need much, much more. Joseph Swan developed a light bulb that used a carbonized filament 30 years before Thomas Edison’s patent, but vacuum pumps had not been invented that could suck the air out of Swan’s bulb. He had an electrical supply, a bulb, a filament, but lacked a pump, so he did not have the technical capacity.

Microchip manufacturers are currently reaching the end of their ability to miniaturize, and so the much-vaunted Moore’s Law…is not a law. Chip designers have a lot of ideas, and are doing a lot of research, but can’t currently turn these possibiities into realities. They do not have the technical capacity.

Commercial power generation with nuclear fusion has been just ten years away…since the 1950s? The technical capacity does not exist.

Social Capacity

Social license, political capital. The ability to tax to raise funds. Volunteers. Educators. The willingness to go to jail in protest or the willingness to put up with inconvenience for a greater social good. Governance, obedience of laws. Unity, harmony, tolerance.

Open minds.

These things are not created or overcome with a good idea. I think of the social capacity as the fruit of relationships. Can a diverse group of people be brought together in common cause?

In the real world, away from the habit of worshipping ideas, we do spend a lot of attention on social capacity; coalition building, social capital, education, fundraising.

Material Capacity

Thanks to post-war exuberance and the silliness of feckless economists few of us think of there being limits to material resources. But of course, on our blue droplet, everything must be finite.  Without snow, you can’t go skiing. If you don’t have energy, you can’t do much of anything. No water or no soil or no seed…no crops.

If you don’t have apples, you can’t make pie. But if you do have apples, you can eat them fresh, dry them, sauce them, bake them, juice them for cider, distill them for brandy—as long as you have the necessary technical and social capacities for each of those operations.

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Sadly, our habit is to think and say that change is about ideas; new ideas cause change. TED Talks are Ideas Worth Spreading. Political parties have platforms and debate ideas. It is currently very important for cities to “consult” with residents and “hear their ideas”.
Pecha KuchaThinklandia. IdeaCity.

We spend a lot of time concerned with messaging and with rhetoric, because our habit frames this battle as a clash of ideas, and when the best idea is proven out, it wins and change will follow as sure as day follows night…

—despite this not according with reality in almost any way; knowledge and awareness are frequently unrelated to behaviour.

—despite this not being the strategy of countless organizations that are getting things done; a soup kitchen is not about ideas, it is about feeding people. A traffic signal is not about ideas, it is about controlling the behaviour of traffic. Politics is rarely about ideas, it is about getting out the vote.

Of course even a traffic light has an organizing idea behind it. What if each signal was organized around a different idea? Disaster. But for traffic control, as with most of human existence, the ideas are quite old. New ideas are very seldom needed, in fact we are still struggling to execute ideas that are millennia old and so the fetishization of ideas is very often misplaced. What is needed is implementation.

Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. – Guy Kawasaki

Don’t freak out too much in trying to parse issues between social and material and technical. There is not much benefit to counting angels on a pin head. The big point is that ideas are not nearly enough. As someone trained in Industrial Design I like to joke I have a degree in brainstorming, and I still think ideas are only 0.1% of the solution.

What is needed is the social and material capacity.

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So how did Donald Trump become president?

It clearly was not a lack of ideas. I don’t think I heard a single new idea in the whole campaign, just the same old repetition about growth and jobs, with some excitement thrown in about health care, globalization and immigration. But I wonder if there was even a single idea that was less than 100 years old.

We have the technical capacity.

Regarding the American electorate, there is a clear lack of social capacity. Divergent social groups can not be brought together.

 

How about the horrifying increase in overdose deaths as elephant tranquillizers are mixed into street drugs?

We clearly do not have the social capacity to care for the wounded people that become and stay addicts, or the social connections to prevent their being so deeply wounded in the first place. Furthermore, once people are addicted, we have the knowledge of safe injection sites—the idea, or technical capacity—but we have NIMBY resistance and government obstruction to opening sites, so we don’t have the social capacity.

Please note I am not saying we can’t develop the social capacity to forgo bathroom remodels and granite countertops, and choose instead to assign that money to paying for the supports necessary to prevent or mitigate the harm caused by our culture. We could do that, but we currently do not have the social capacity.

 

Climate chaos is the poster child of our misallocation of expectations. Scientists did research, the UN made statements, Al Gore went on tour.

The technical capacity is all there—the information and data, even the bright green solutions of electric cars and solar panels and high-speed trains, and the deep green solutions of walkable communities and bioregionalism and simple living.

And we progressives and environmentalists have spent well over a decade being gobsmacked that the only significant changes have been to the increasing level of carbon in the atmosphere. The atmosphere doesn’t care about Kyoto, or Paris, or Rio the first time or the second time. The atmosphere doesn’t even know Copenhagen exists.

The atmosphere only cares about tonnes of carbon, and those keep increasing.

And the louder we talk at people who seem to not be hearing us, the more social capacity we lose as we harden people into opposition.

An excellent recent article by David Roberts fleshes this out.

Most of our knowledge is not acquired or held in ways that we would think of as “learning”—teacher-student, textbook, debate, et c. Knowledge is social, Roberts explains, and is largely passed or outsourced within social groups.

So, in a formal learning environment, let’s say math class, a conservative student will not care if the teacher is from the same group and shares their conservative politics. The student is there to learn and math is math.

In informal environments, like everyday life, the practise of outsourcing knowledge works great, most of the time. If we all had to know how to manufacture every part of every thing in the human realm we would be living a much more stone-age existence. So we are perfectly happy to let someone else be the expert in concrete reinforcing bar or antenna geometry while we are the experts in our field, and few of us care what social groups are involved.

But climate chaos is clearly different, maybe because it requires such broad changes to all aspects of our lives and cultures, maybe because it was carefully politicized. It is not something many of us go to school for, so we form opinions about it based on very few facts but a great deal of social “hum”. It is not much good for progressives to lecture conservatives on climate change because lecturing is not the mode of transmission for that subject and the social groups are not shared.

There is a huge gulf between social groups which simply arrests any attempts to build other social capacities, as would be needed to reallocate resources to carbon reduction, resettle away from flood zones, or make changes to urban form. So, we lack the social capacity to tackle climate change.

 

In these times, when we have more than enough ideas to enable us to live better than any royal family ever has and before the shortage of material capacity becomes impossible to ignore, most of our struggle comes down to a shortage of social capacity, as those three examples highlighted.

And as I said, it is not that we can’t reallocate our social resources of time and money to elevate important issues. We have, and we will continue to do so.

But social capacity is finite. It is based on the limited time in each day, on the limited capacity for communication and analysis, on the limited willingness to be taxed.

So, we can reallocate social resources to some issues, but certainly not all issues. As is the main point of my writing on Compassionate Systems, we need to replace social capacity with system design whenever we possibly can.

And, since we have too many issues that demand more capacity than we can possibly provide, each issue ends up in competition with the others—which is a horrible situation to be in. So, we need to shift to systems, but we also need to just give up on some issues, and lay them down. We need to lay them down so they don’t weaken others for lack of resources.

 

Technical capacity is our habit and gets all the glamour, social capacity is where the real work is happening, and material capacity still tends to be ignored, except around the hairier fringes of the internet.

I think we lack the material capacity to tackle climate change, and perhaps the fact we don’t notice this is another bad habit (which is a lack of social capacity). The material transformation after WWII has given us the habit of acting like we will always have more energy and more material. How else could we explain coffee pods and the fact the automotive fleet gets no better mileage than the Model T Ford?

The sheer volume of energy and minerals that would be required to shift our consumption to either lower energy infrastructure or “green” energy may not be available.

And, of course, fossil fuels and mineral resources are all finite, so they are depleting and will at some point be unaffordable. Things we can do today we will not always be able to do as our material resources deplete.

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One of John Michael Greer’s very best posts on The Archdruid Report, to my mind, was his eulogy for William Catton. Tucked into the warm reflection was this amazing paragraph, which offers more background for the primacy of the idea and blindness to the material capacity:

Over the three centuries of industrialization…the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity… The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

 

There is no limit to number of ideas you can have about pie. But if you do not have apples, and a baker, you will never get to taste it.

 

.

 

 

{ 12 comments }

Let me start this with a confession. I am a fiscally conservative radical leftist—and I think we need a new understanding of how an economy should serve society, and what sort of society we want our economy to serve.

Our economy got personal this morning. My clock radio woke me to the news that Canada Post is ending door-to-door mail service, with a loss of 8,000 jobs. This is personal because I know two people who are waiting to be posties. One is a friend, a past postie with seniority, but who moved to a different town and is now waiting and hoping to get a route. Another is our neighbour who is taking night classes and working several jobs, one of which is as an on-call postal carrier.

So, two women I am in contact with several times a week will be impacted by this change. And by impacted I don’t mean they will have to go to fine restaurants less often, I mean they may end up in serious financial trouble. They may have a hard time paying the rent. They may end up making hard choices about feeding their children.
Now, this is the reality of change, change is pain. I am not specifically arguing for door to door mail service. But I do think we need to talk about it, and because I am a radically leftist fiscal conservative, I am not going to toe any party lines.

So, here are my assumptions:

We are oil

Humanity muddled along for millennia; population was pretty stable and life was mostly subsistence. Then coal and oil began to be used on grand scales and the chart of everything went through the roof—population, mining, manufacturing, farming, fish extraction, it all went exponential. Everything requires energy and fossil fuels allowed the economy to expand beyond the limits of today’s sunshine. An expanding economy created surplus food, and surplus food was turned into more people.

Wealth

Wealth is not numbers in your bankbook. Wealth is the products of nature; the metals, woods, animals, plants and fishes. Wealth is also created when humans work natural resources. Nature makes salmon, which we fish and eat, but our leftovers begin to rot and we lose that wealth. So when we add the labour to dry and smoke salmon, we create a new kind of wealth.

What is not wealth is the finance industry. Wealth is actual real things, the products of nature that feed and shelter us, and the products we make from the products of nature. The financial industry is just a shell game, a carnival attraction that suckers the rubes with a ring toss. Sure, you can currently exchange “financial instruments” for real wealth, but until you do that they are not wealth.

Also, knowledge is not wealth. Knowledge is great, and knowledge can help us smoke our salmon better, but until the salmon is actually smoked, you don’t have any wealth. You can’t eat dollar bills, and you can’t eat ideas.

Fossil fuels are a product of nature and are real wealth. They also allow us to transform the products of nature at a scale millions of times greater than we could with sunshine.

Please note I am not saying that is a good thing. Wealth is not necessarily a good thing. But it is real, and that is why I am a fiscal conservative. I believe our world is finite, and our wealth comes from our world, therefore our wealth is finite. We should spend it wisely.

The Barrel

Oil no longer gushes from the ground. There are virtually no giant, straight old-growth trees. Most of our fisheries have disappeared or are dwindling rapidly. We have become so proficient at harvesting the wealth of nature that we are having difficulty figuring out what to do next.

So let me be clear. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Fracking for gas and oil is a sign of system failure. This isn’t innovation, this is desperation—there is no other reason we would use such crazy and expensive techniques.

Engineered wood products are a sign of failure. Really? We need to make boards from grass? We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t desperate.

Salmon farms are a sign of failure. Salmon used to jump into our boats. The First Nations say there were so many fish you could walk across rivers on the backs of salmon. Salmon cross the oceans eating and exercising to create that perfect, delicious meat—but now we spoon-feed them pablum like babies? Why would we hoover up the sardines and rockfish from South America to grind up and feed the farms if we were not desperate?

We are scraping the bottom of the barrel, and a barrel is a perfect analogy. It is perfect because it is made of wood from a tree that has been shaped by humans to hold more bounty of nature. It is a real thing. It is wealth. And when a barrel is empty, it is actually empty and there is nothing more inside it. This is in sharp contrast to those knowledge workers, the economists, who insist the market will substitute once price signals are sufficient.

Well, there is no substitute for Atlantic Cod, or for old-growth fir, or the deep soils of the plains and river deltas. Wealth is real things, and when we run low, we desperately scrape at the bottom of the barrel. And after we have scraped…the barrel is empty. You can’t eat ideas, even if you have millions and millions of them.

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I took this long digression from Canada Post because the people who deliver our mail need real wealth to eat and keep their family warm, but we are scraping the bottom of the barrel.

This morning’s news, plus a list of other layoffs I read last night and the myriad identical stories from around the world, are signs of system failure. We didn’t have layoffs when oil was cheap and plentiful, there were new fields to plough and every tree you could cut was turned into new houses in new subdivisions. But we are scraping the bottom of the barrel. Our real wealth is diminishing.

Our real wealth is diminishing. I am sorry it took me so long to say that simple sentence. Our real wealth is diminishing. We are in the time of contraction. I think most of us know that in our hearts, even if we numbly repeat the mantra that growth will return.

Our real wealth is diminishing and the gap between rich and poor is widening and hardening. The poor design of this chart hides the number of people hurt by this. 90% of U.S. families have lost 11% of their income, while the richest 10% have made untold billions.

MI-BZ607_UNEQUA_G_20131110150005

This is not because 90% of people are lazy. This is because the motivational story we tell about our economy does not work in a world of diminishing wealth. Bootstrapping yourself up seldom grants access to the heights of society, but it works well when even the middle class enjoys great luxury. But the middle class is losing their luxury as the very rich accumulate more.

As we look around the world we see the rich nations falling in all measures. Even the sacred cow of Life Expectancy has dropped and is not rebounding. The free market, and especially globalization, have proven very good at draining the barrel, but not so good at floating all boats. And now the tide is going out and most of the boats are lying on the sand. The right-wing prescriptions have failed.

But, because our real wealth is diminishing, I don’t think we can take the liberal approach of increasing national debt to stimulate the economy. We don’t need stimulation, we are scraping the bottom of the barrel. We need to learn to live with, and share, what is left in barrel.

So that is my first thing. We should share. Making money is only possible thanks to the investments we have all made in shared roads, shared energy systems, shared legal and monetary systems, et c., et c., and therefore the profits should be shared back. I believe in minimum wages, maximum wages and Guaranteed Annual Incomes. All humans are born equal, and I think we should die having lived with equal amounts of health care, dental care, food, shelter and dignified work.

So, how do we share our diminishing wealth? I am flabbergasted that my city mows my boulevard, vacuums up fallen leaves and carries my garbage out of my backyard for me. The city is nearly bankrupt, and yet I am not expected to compost my own leaves. Similarly, I don’t really mind the idea of walking down to the mailbox. I grew up on a rural route, and can easily cope with an urban mailbox.

Which means we could fire a bunch of city workers, 8,000 posties, and probably millions more who work in jobs created in an expanding economy.

The thing is, I don’t want these thousands of people to try to join the bullshit knowledge economy, or try to compete in globalized industry. I don’t want them to be hungry or fearful. I don’t want them to be ashamed.

I want them to create wealth.

So, I am speaking out for the posties today. I am speaking out for the foundry workers and the furniture builders and the resource towns dying all over this country. I am not saying we should save their industries or support their towns or fossilize any other social structure. But I am saying I think an economy should organize the sharing of our diminishing wealth.

We are in a new era now, and our economy should serve us, not make the situation worse.

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puzzle piecePiece of the Puzzle:
Joseph Tainter on Complexity

I developed my understanding of sustainability essentially by hyperlinking books. I would read a book, then go through the citations and find another interesting book. This led me through design and ecology and economics and psychology and business and so many other things. At some point a pattern started emerging, and new bits and pieces began to fit into the pattern—each Piece of the Puzzle is something that has really stuck in my mind.
Not in chronological, or any other, order—just as the whim strikes me.

 

Joseph Tainter came to me relatively recently, maybe just in the last four or five years, but I find his work on complexity to be shockingly important.

He is an academic, so he does not lack for detail, but here is my favourite part in a nutshell:

We tend to solve problems by adding a layer of complexity to the situation. That new layer creates its own problems, which we solve with another layer of complexity. Each layer suffers from diminishing returns, and—here is the kicker—adding complexity eventually generates negative returns.

So, adding complexity eventually sucks value out of life, your project, our planet—everything. Here is a chart of what that looks like—Level of Complexity on the bottom axis, and Benefits of Complexity up the side axis:

Tainter1

Tainter’s big book is the Collapse of Complex Societies, which I found to be a very enjoyable read with lots of great examples. Here is a 15 minute interview and a 90 minute YouTube. Ugo Bardi looked at the thermodynamics.

“A collapse is a rapid simplification of society. It is a rapid loss of complexity.” So Tainter asked, “One of the questions of history is why is this seemingly inexorable trend in human society towards innovation and complexity occasionally punctuated by collapse?”

Having worked as an industrial designer, I have had a front row seat to the manufacturing supply chain—a very visceral view of how complex and brittle the systems we have built our world out of truly are. When you look around the world, you can see the negative returns all around us:

  • build a highway to fix congestion—which doesn’t fix the congestion, but does drain the pothole budget, so all the other roads get worse.
  • require playgrounds to have soft surfaces to reduce injuries—which increases the costs and reduces the number of playgrounds.
  • agriculture is a big one—chemical agriculture is used to boost production, but eventually destroys the soil so nothing can grow there.

Tainter also takes on the most sacred of cows, Innovation. He points out that innovation is also subject to diminishing returns—the first flush toilet was seriously awesome, but figuring out how to put custom finishes on toilets is much less remarkable.

In fact, if we are to maintain the illusion that indefinite growth is possible, we need ever-faster innovation cycles. Product design cycles used to be a couple of years, then one year, then six months. Now in some industries the design cycle may be just a few weeks. But we must go faster if we are to stay in the same place—soon we will be conceiving of, designing, prototyping, manufacturing and releasing products, all in the blink of an eye.

Except, of course, that is clearly impossible. So Tainter, with his modest puzzle piece, manages to skewer bureaucracy, complexity, collapse, innovation and growth. Phew! Heavy hitter!

So what next? “Now that we can do anything, we must do less.” When we are solving problems, we must try to find simpler solutions, rather than complex ones. How can we strip away bureaucracy, technology and data? How can we build a system simple enough to be understood and operated by its users?

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