Sunday, January 22, 2012

Elaborating eCOOLnomics

"Voluntary simplicity must be extolled for the ineffable quality of life it bestows, to the point where it becomes a viral meme that infects teenagers and sticks with them for life."

Humorist historian Sarah Vowell, in her book on the rise and fall of Hawaii, Unfamiliar Fishes, writes that “expecting capitalists to refrain from gobbling up the Earth is like blaming PacMan for gulping down PacDots.” She hastily adds that the experience with implementing the Marxist vision at a continental scale didn’t work out all that well either. With presidential politics polarizing the US electorate between laissez faire libertarians and lean-to-the-point-of-mean social welfare conservatives, the issue over raw versus moderated capitalism would seem joined. Only capitalism goes unchallenged.

Naomi Klein, in a piece for TheNation and separately in an interview with New York Times’ AndrewRevkin last month in Durban, hung some inconvenient climate truths around the neck of capitalists.

She urged the Left to embrace a reality identified by nutcase climate skeptics — that a meaningful response to global warming would be a fatal blow to free markets and capitalism. This is the trench line the United States has plowed through the UN climate talks and is using to machine gun well-meaning Europeans, small island states, developing world juggernauts and others who seem to think that modest changes in shopping habits can decarbonize or de-crowd a planet on the verge of systemic disintegration and lead us to a bright new green economy. Klein told Revkin:
“If you really do believe that freedom means governments getting out of the way of corporations and that any regulation leads us down Hayek’s road to serfdom, then climate science is going to be kryptonite to you. After all, the reality that humans are causing the climate to warm, with potentially catastrophic results, really does demand radical government intervention in the market, as well as collective action on an unprecedented scale.”

Revkin challenged Klein’s hypothesis that the only strategy that can work is “radical government intervention,” saying that more modest approaches like incentives and disincentives might tip the playing field. Klein replied that Revkin sounded just like the Big Environmental Groups and marginalized NGOs at the Durban talks, taking whatever crumbs of reform fall from the capitalist table. Light bulbs and hybrid cars won’t get us to 350, she argued. Liberals need to confront the reality that an 80 percent reduction — which is all that stands between green Earth and the landscape of Mars — really is a deathblow to capitalism. The stark choice is between aggressive regulation/refashioning of consumer culture or rushing straight over the cliff’s edge.

Are we as buffalo being stampeded by herd instinct — in this case our consumerist DNA? Or are we as monkeys with our paws caught in a trap fashioned by our reptilian brain, unwilling to let go of all the goodies we have so recently latched onto? Or, do we have yet some freedom of movement here? Can we, as Klein suggests, refashion the whole setup from something glaringly dysfunctional to something offering a scintilla of hope that survival of mammalian bipeds with outsized cerebral cortices might yet have a place in the greater scheme of things?

If we are getting back to those basic assumptions that need to be refashioned, we might start with one of the favorite keywords on Occupy street placards — capitalism.

Going to graduate school will teach you to challenge your assumptions. One assumption that accredited online masters degree programs may cause people to reconsider is that capitalism can coexist with meaningful response to climate change. Not even the best students have specific answers to these challenges right now. But online graduate schools provide a great forum for sharing ideas.

Capitalism is, like money, a relatively recent global phenomenon. It arrived with the comfortable climate following the Medieval Maximum (which we now suspect to have been driven, at least in part, by the monumental city states of the Americas and their carbon-intensive land-use policies) and the trade empires that needed large dollops of up-front cash to back risky sea voyages. A few florins risked on a tall ship’s captain might be lost in the nearest local public house, or on an uncharted reef, or it might return a hundredfold in profits. The system paid off often enough to put an end to feudalism.

Feudalism had its own variety of JudeoChristian/Moslem/Hindu/Buddhist socialism; pledge allegiance to a hereditary lord’s flag and your basic needs (land, water, protection) can be met. No money need change hands. Amongst the broad population of serfs, social strata was minimal, and life happened. Amongst the sparser noble born, there was always someone higher up who had it a little better, but your life was reassuringly always better than the serfs, and so the game played on. Having gold coins, land or other hoardable forms of wealth raised your stakes.

The feudal system had to assume a minimal level of social welfare for the serfs or there would be neither food on the manor table nor soldiers at the manor’s ramparts. A foolish libertarian nobleman who thought that cutting away at the “waste” of benefits for the serfs to feather his bed could find himself soon starving.

At the edges and interstices of this system was theocracy, which set up hierarchies of priests, monks and acolytes that lived off whatever could be squeezed from the wealth of the lords’ economy. Within the theocratic matrix was yet another form of economic organization, after the style of Jesus’s twelve apostles — “All who believed were together and had everything in common, sold property and possessions to give to each as they had need.” (Acts 2:44-45).

Communism was the foundational economic system not just of Christian monastics, but of the early Mormons under Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the youthful sanghas circled around Gautama Buddha, and in the ashrams of India, China and Japan. Curiously, communism finds scant history in Islam. Why is that? Apparently, unlike Jesus and Buddha, Mohammed believed in separation of church and purse. “Trust in Allah but tie up your camel,” as they say.

In Islam, good works towards needy neighbors are a duty of the faithful, but the idea of a shared purse extends only to a small tithe to the mosque or community. While compounding interest is forbidden by the Holy Koran — the founders of arithmetic understood why — free enterprise is extolled and, as in all the other religions, the founding texts assume there will always be rich and poor. The question of whether who is rich and who is poor is to be decided by fate or by moxie is finessed. To followers of Ayn Rand, including all the current Republican contenders, its never about fate.

Timur Kuran observes:
“In a technologically primitive and static world, where family background determines one's career, where one plants and sells crops in the ways of one's grandparents, where one has little to spend on nonsubsistence goods, and where markets offer little variety, economics may be vital to physical survival but economic decision making does not absorb much attention. By contrast, in a technologically advanced world, where job choices have to be made, where women pursue and interrupt careers outside the home, where investment choices require monitoring, and where markets offer abundant choice, economic decision making absorbs considerable time.”
The Genesis of Islamic Economics: A Chapter in the Politics of Muslim Identity, Social Research, Vol. 64, no. 2 (Summer 1997) 

This tension between capitalism, socialism, and theocracy is bound to be heightened in the coming years, because fates — whether climate, energy resources, or ticking cultural time bombs — will now conspire to reset the game to the start and at the same time absorb much more attention. Great! At the start of the game all strategies are possible. So what future economic strategy optimizes our prospects?

First and foremost, it needs to be something that both mitigates and adapts to climate change. For many years we have been talking about carbon-negative ecovillage designs that heat and cool our buildings while building soil fertility and drought resistance. Our concept of eCOOLnomics seeks to nurture an appropriate reward and punishment system to drive that.

Second, while showing mercy and giving opportunity to the poor and dispossessed, it needs to cool down consumerist expectations, including power-hungry electronic varieties that are so greatly appreciated today. Voluntary simplicity must be extolled for the ineffable quality of life it bestows, to the point where it becomes a viral meme that infects teenagers and sticks with them for life.

Thirdly, trade and commerce have to fall into step with the new world order of decroissance. Sail powered transport, bike-to-rail, and market relocalization are all ascendant.

Since we published our Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times (Amazon Kindle: 2007), a spate of serious treatises have hit print and should be considered important resources for eCOOLnomists. Here are some of our favorites.

Peak Everything: Waking Up to a Century of Declines and End of Growth by Richard Heinberg. We have loved everything Heinberg has written, and among a cacophony of prophetic voices, his predictions stand the test of time. These books put plateau dates and decline curves to a host of natural resources — arable land, coal production, uranium, water withdrawals, grain production, fish catch, and more — but are remarkable for (in keeping with our nagging theme here) also asking whether there might yet be some good things that are not going to peak. He suggests community, personal autonomy, satisfaction from honest work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, leisure time, happiness, ingenuity, artistry, and beauty of the built environment. Buy long and invest in all of that.

ZeroCarbonBritain 2030 by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). In 1972 a group of young idealists colonized a derelict slate quarry on the edge of Snowdonia National Park in Wales. Inspired by the notion of creating a community to test alternatives to mainstream technology, they aimed to research, develop and implement new approaches to sustainable technologies and lifestyles. Today, the Centre receives 70,000 visitors each year, has a world class research division and offers a master’s degree program. This book shows how the island of Great Britain could meet all its food, water, energy, housing and transportation needs on a completely renewable basis, with an affordable price tag even in a Depression, by 2030.

The Long Descent and Wealth of Nature by John Michael Greer. The Archdruid has become celebrated in collapsnik circles for describing a new shape to the civilizational decline curve — stair-step, or what he terms, “catabolic collapse.” Rather than the sudden plunge that Heinberg, Lundberg and others have been intimating, Greer sees built-in feedback loops in the global economy that will dampen and extend the crash so that it evolves over decades or centuries, although still be impossible to reverse.  Greer is another writer who is hard to put down once he has you in his fold. Even if you disagree with some of his conclusions, his logic is impeccable and his grasp of the human historic sweep enthralling.

Occupy World Street by Ross Jackson. Jackson provides a much needed nuts and bolts approach to all of these issues through an insider’s knowledge of the government and corporate power circles in Europe and North America. Dennis Meadows, who wrote the computer programs for the Club of Rome that produced the seminal Limits to Growth study, calls Jackson’s strategy “the first plausible, constructive scenario I have seen; an excellent text, even amazing.” We don’t find it all that amazing, but then we have been in active partnership with the author for the past two decades. Any formula will have to involve some kind of collaboration between communities and governments with the goal of promoting diversity, localism, and sustainable development. The questions are, what is the vehicle for that collaboration and how does it come into being. Jackson proposes a Gaian Resource Board, sort of like the Texas Railroad Commission for the world’s non-renewable resources. In progressive countries like Denmark, where Canadian-born Jackson lives, government structures like this are wholesome and clever. Whole islands are now off-grid and thriving on their own microeconomies. Can the same kind of transformation come to the Russian kleptocracy or Sarah Palen’s back yard? One wonders. Still, it is nice to have a map when you are lost and trying to get some bearings.

The End of Money and the Future of Civilization by Thomas H. Greco. Seeing a revolution at the horizon, Greco puts our choices at this critical moment in direct terms. We have to shift from elite, national “command and control” hierarchies backed by military brute force to something far more decentralized and local. This will happen on its own, driven by Hubbert’s Curve, but the devil is in the details. In a succession of books over the past decade, Greco has moved from incremental changes through policy steps to a radical (meaning “back to the root”) reversal of global power; top down to bottom up. The End of Money urges bottomdwellers to “reclaim the credit commons,” by simply withdrawing from national and continental currencies and changing the ways their transactions are mediated. To us, this seems to have a better shot in the current street scene than Jackson’s new world regulatory authorities. The problem is interest-glomming Big Money, which is an impossibly unsustainable Ponzi scheme when one considers we live on a finite planet. Greco’s proposal is for local credit clearing unions and, if those are shut down, then local voucher systems, which could be entirely digital and personally encrypted, to rapidly suck the air out of Big Money. If we can steer away from our past pattern of corrupting every successful revolution, what lies beyond the Great Change is more inclusive, participatory, just, harmonious and ecologically sustainable.

The Web of Debt by  Ellen Hodgson Brown. Ellen Brown is a fine speaker and storyteller and her book takes you through a history of “money for dummies” using the Wizard of Oz as a recurrent theme. Describing Benjamin Franklin’s handiwork in creating the colonial dollar, she noted that Franklin’s press took away the power of the British bankers’ gold, which could be hoarded, manipulated and lent only at usurious interest rates. It gave the colonial government the power to finance essential services and functions without taxing anyone. Indeed, the whole rationale for taxation, once governments began printing paper money, is a wealth-leveling one. That seems not to have escaped the notice of Republicans, who would get rid of government (along with the essential services and functions) for that very reason. The best quote in the book, however, goes to Hjalmar Schacht, head of the German central bank in the early 1930s. Told by a Wall Street banker “Dr. Schacht, you should come to America. We’ve lots of money and that’s real banking,” Schacht replied, “You should come to Berlin. We don’t have money. That’s real banking.”

Songs of Petroleum by Jan Lundberg. This very personal narrative takes you along in the life story of Culture Change founder and activist Jan Lundberg as he leaves behind his petrochemical industrial insider status and fortune to pursue a vision of what the world can still be if we can be of like mind. Thomas Hardy said, “If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.” Lundberg is unflinching. But then he delivers a path to the better, and it starts with permaculture, holistic health care, sail power, local economy, and unstinting hope.


Unknown said...

You should add Jeremy Grantham's comments from his GMO site. GMO is a major institutional money manager, and Mr. Grantham is one of the great investoirs of our generation. But he is extremely concerned about climate change and resource depletion, and a number of his quarterly reports on his websites about this subject are MUST reads. I strongly recommend a post about Grantham's quarterly letters and his views on this subject!

Albert Bates said...

If you go to the righthand sidebar under the archived blogs and click to last August, you can see we mentioned Grantham and the “new era” of resource constraint he calls the "Great Paradigm Shift" in our post, 44 Years of Slow Collapse. Thanks for the comment and chance to point readers there.




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