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.

 

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Is our localism too artisanal?

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.

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.

 

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. 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-artisanal baker making normal loaves of bread for the supermarket, you are competing with the megacorps that put the local bakers out of business 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 artisanal 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, 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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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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