Archive for the ‘Collapse’ Tag
It happens often. A large job waits for me, and for a moment it seems almost impossible. Or, if not impossible, at least quite daunting and far more than I want to tackle. It might be planning and planting the garden, or clearing a fence line overgrown with blackberry, or simply completing some new task I’m unfamiliar with. In that moment, the doubts creep in. It feels like too much. It feels too hard. It’s overwhelming. I’m not of the personality that tends to thrive on these challenges; faced with such tasks, I often want to go sit on a sunny patio with a good beer or curl up inside with a good book. I am a creature of comfort. I can’t deny this.
Sometimes I do this. I ignore the job in front of me, the unwanted but necessary work. When I do this, I’m almost always poorer for it. The temporary comfort of ignoring the necessity gives way eventually to the consequences of an important job undone. Turning your back on reality does not make it go away. It only adds to the ferocity of its eventual return.
How many ways this is applicable. I have two jobs—not at all hard—that I’ve been avoiding today. One is the writing of a post for this blog. The other is going over to my previous place of residence and dealing with the piles of recyclables that I need to sort and take to the local recycling center. Neither of these tasks has yet to be completed. Outside, it has been raining throughout the day, often heavy. And so I’ve found myself inside, drinking coffee, reading a report on the shale bubble, reading a post on The Automatic Earth about building out renewables, conversing with my roommates, avoiding the nagging reminder in the back of my mind that there are jobs to be done. This is not a good response to my reality, to my present, to my future. It’s a small failure—not helpful, but not disastrous, either.
Yet there’s no reason not to tackle the jobs. The blog post can be written—it’s just that no idea is grabbing me by the throat, demanding my attention. I have plenty of ideas, though, that have been waiting for months to be written. Nothing is stopping me but my own small avoidance. And the recycling, as well, is not such a big deal, but it does need to be done. Others are waiting for me to complete this task. It’s another small failure, this time at a community level. It doesn’t help.
— ∞ —
Last night, John Michael Greer argued that the shale bubble is on the verge of popping, and that it could mean another round of harsh economic realities for us in the near future. He wrote of a bubble-and-bust economic trend to be carried out over the foreseeable future and all the complications of dealing with our current and future circumstances that will entail. We face a troubled present, and more troubled future, consisting of constricting energy resources, a dysfunctional economy, and the hard realities of contraction. There are a number of responses we could take—none of which would solve the problem, granted, but could help soften the predicament—but due to our inability, as a culture and society, to face up to the truth of what’s taking place, we will not be able to marshal the action and resources to carry out those responses. As such, our likely response as a society to the future is one in which we “evolve through crisis, not through proactive change,” as Dennis Meadows noted in an interview in Der Spiegel. We are not planning a sane response to our future; we can’t even agree on the foundations of a sane response. Counting on centralized action at this point would be disastrous.
Luckily, we’re not at the mercy of centralized action. Every one of us holds the ability to change our lives. This ability is not complete or unencumbered, granted, but we can challenge societal norms, opt out from excess modes of living, and begin the hard and necessary work of scaling back our lives to a level more appropriate for a contracting economy and deindustrializing world. We can engage the household economy. We can learn to garden, to raise and care for livestock, to cook from scratch. We can take up coppicing, experiment with biochar, build rocket stoves, teach ourselves the ecological principles that more and more will assert themselves in the day-to-day reality of our lives. We can expose ourselves to the outside climate, scale back our need for climate control, learn to live with heat and cold in ways that don’t involve a thermostat and piped in fuel. We can remember what it is to be human, to live in communities, to build democracies, and we can get down to the hard work of implementing again those realities and complex human interactions. We can insulate our homes, put on sweaters, sit in the shade of a tree on a hot summer day. We can bike to work, walk to the store, take the train rather than the plane, ride the bus, either across town or across the state, or just stay home. We can begin to cut out our wasteful habits and tendencies—unnecessary entertainments and distractions, that cable bill, that Netflix account, high speed internet, video games, Blu-Rays. We can turn off the television. We can replace vacuous pop culture with meaningful work, useful hobbies, sustaining activities. We can, in other words, get out of the game.
That’s a small list of the things we can do, today or tomorrow or early next week—but soon, damn it. It’s not time to just think about these changes, philosophize about them, talk in abstract ways about them. It’s time to do them. Every day is important. Every day puts us closer to the next crisis and a form of evolution that is chaotic and messy and painful. Every day spent changing our lives in response to the crisis before it happens is another step toward a more humane response to the challenges of the future, hopefully a bit less chaotic and messy and painful. And every action we take to help soften our own personal blow, we put ourselves in a better position to help our community—which in a lovely feedback loop, may very well help to further soften the personal blow of the hard times here now, and the worse ones coming.
— ∞ —
But this means work. It’s inevitable. It’s unavoidable, no matter how good we are at avoiding it. Thinking about the popping of the shale gas bubble, perhaps another recession like in 2008, or perhaps something worse, can be frightening and paralyzing. It seems so big—it is big. It’s challenging. It’s overwhelming. And the more dependent we are on the overarching system, the more vulnerable we are, the more challenging and hopeless it might seem. But allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by that challenge, that sense of hopelessness, that fear—it’s pointless. It doesn’t help us. Avoiding it does not eliminate the predicament. Busying ourselves with other, unproductive tasks does not better our future.
It’s a cliche, but it’s the getting to work that usually is the hardest. It’s that initial engagement that can so easily stop us. But once we begin the process, it can snowball from there. Not always, of course—sometimes there are challenges, missteps, moments of depression and despair that temporarily halt our progress. But again, we have to press forward and continue on, to not allow ourselves to lose out to that sense of impossibility.
The antidote to fear is good work. Never forget that. It’s one of the most important truths we have right now.
— ∞ —
When you get into the thick of the work, when it begins to click, the world starts to fall into place. Everything hums. It’s exhilarating. The progress begins to build upon itself, each step forward suddenly seeming a bit longer and a bit more sure, a bit more emphatic. The final accomplishment begins to come into view, and in view of that accomplishment, many more seem possible. This is another positive feedback loop, and it’s one of the most important ones for the troubled times ahead.
Today I can grow a garden, raise livestock, make bread and butter and yogurt and homemade sodas, cook from scratch, suffer the cold, weather the heat, and thrive on physical work. Not too many years ago, I either couldn’t or cared not to do all those things. But those skills and that knowledge did not come at once. It was a long procession—a procession that continues to this day. It was filled with leaps forward and fallings back. It was filled with triumph, with exhilaration, and with uncountable moments in which it all felt impossible, in which I questioned every decision I had made. It involved depression and doubt. And it involved resolve and certainty.
But all my successes ultimately came about through work. It came about through engagement, through tentative first steps, through a process of discovery. And all of it involved initial doubts and fears, often times overwhelming. As I said, I am a creature of comfort. Some people thrive off new challenges and the opportunity to master unknown skills. I don’t, at least not instinctively. That’s not my psychology. I hate to appear incompetent. I hate to admit I don’t know what I’m doing. I like comfort and routine and ease. But despite all these traits, I’ve managed to dramatically change my life and learn an array of new skills over the preceding five years—and every year, I learn a vast amount more. Granted, there’s still a vast amount I don’t know—I’m still incredibly ignorant about so much—but I’m in a far more resilient place than I was just a few years ago.
I worry about what might happen with the shale gas bubble, or with some other sort of dramatic economic trouble. I suspect another shock to the system is coming soon, perhaps later this year or next. It seems a bit too quiet and our economic foundation is far too rickety and rotten. My worry, though, is more about my family and friends, and my community, than myself. I think I’m a bit insulated. I know I can live on a small amount of money—relatively speaking—and could cut back even more if necessary. I suspect my work is mostly safe from economic shocks, at least up to a point. (I could be wrong about that, of course. The economy is a tricky, complex, interrelated system.) I have skills. I have potential fall back plans. Nothing is guaranteed, but I don’t expect the next economic shocks to wipe me out.
That small sense of security is, again, the result of the work I’ve done over recent years. It’s a result not of centralized action, but of personal action. It’s a result of the ways in which I’ve changed my life, changed my expectations, built my skills, built my resiliency, and engaged my community. It’s about me getting down to the business of saving my own ass—with an irreplaceable number of assists from my local community, of course!—and accepting the trade offs that that entails. I don’t mean this to sound self-congratulatory; my sense of security could be a complete illusion, or the next troubles could be far worse than I expect. I only mean to advocate for a course of action that I suspect could benefit every person who reads this.
— ∞ —
The future is one of crises. I write that with complete confidence. Our ways of living, in the developed world, are brittle at best. They are temporary. They are perched upon the ricketiest of foundations, and they are going to come down bit by bit, in a slow overall crumble punctuated by the occasional dramatic collapse.
But our lives are not entirely at the mercy of the broader societal crises that are an inevitable piece of our future. We can take action now to insulate ourselves a bit against those crises. We can choose to evolve proactively at the individual and community level. In doing so, we can make the future a tiny bit better. We can have our own small impact.
It’s not a panacea. It’s not a grand fix. It’s just our small piece, our little bit of action. It’s those first steps in the face of an intractable and overwhelming predicament. But it’s necessary, because there’s nothing else to do, unless we’re content to lay down and die. We could turn our back on the future and pretend its challenges aren’t real, but that would be a terrible mistake. It already promises a great enough ferocity; let us please not make it worse. Begin the work today. Start tackling those problems. If you haven’t taken the first steps, take them today. If you have, but you’ve faltered, get back to work. And if you’re cruising right along, continue that hard and necessary process.
I expect no centralized solutions. But every day, even in the midst of the crises, the individual solutions and responses are there for the taking, in every person’s own life. That’s the hope. That’s the antidote.
An entry in How To Be Poor
In the previous entry in this series, The Reductionist Trap, I wrote about a possible diet I could eat that would seem to be sustainable and practical, given my circumstances and the broader world at large. As I noted in that post, I believe such a diet could be resilient, both in the world as it is today and, quite possibly, in the world as I expect it to exist over the coming years—that is, with reduced available energy and resources and lower purchasing power for most involved. In today’s post, I want to speak in greater depth about resiliency, raise the issue of margins, and make an argument for how these concepts can help guide how we structure our lives for a future sporting greater material poverty.
Resiliency is defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” and John Michael Greer— in a post about resiliency that I’ve referenced before, in this blog’s longest, but by no means best, entry—defines it as “the opposite of efficiency.” He goes on to write that, “What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down.”
If I’m correct in the belief that the future is going to sport a good deal less energy and resources—a good deal less wealth for most all of us, in other words—than resiliency is exactly what we need. That future is going to be rife with misfortune and change, a series of shocks to the industrial system, and an altered landscape—figuratively and literally—on which we’ll have to make our livings. Jobs will be lost, incomes will drop, food will become more expensive and scarce. Blackouts are more common, and that trend will continue as power companies cannibalize their existing infrastructure. I wouldn’t be surprised if rural areas started deelectrifying within the next half century. Road systems will degrade, bridges will collapse or be shut down due to safety concerns, and driving will become less viable in a wide variety of ways. America is in the early stages of decline and faces a rough future in which the general state is one of contraction—thus, the list of these changes could go on and on. Suffice it to say, though, the future is going to be much more rough than the recent past.
To imagine this future in simpler terms, let’s consider a piece of lined notebook paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. But let’s change it a bit from a standard piece of notebook paper. This one has two inch margins on either side, leaving just four and a half inches of writing area in the middle. Not much room in the core, right? In fact, barely more than in the margins. The core of this paper is industrial society as we expect it to function, complete with high technology and massive energy usage, the waste of natural resources, and the assumption of perpetual growth. Draw a line straight down the middle, top of the paper to bottom, straight as an arrow. That might be something like the Wal-Mart ordering system and supply chain—one of the more efficient structures in today’s industrial society, within the confines of how we define efficiency. There’s little waste in the sense that products are ordered just in time, from centralized factories, arriving via centralized transport systems, all maximized as much as possible within a computerized system. There are wastes, granted, but they’re wastes that we by and large ignore within the context of our industrial assumptions and economic organization.
There’s little resiliency to this system. A disruption in the transportation, or in the ability of the factories to function, or in the supply chains that feed the factories, or in the computer system that does the ordering, or in any other number of the system’s numerous points of functioning could lead to empty shelves and lost profit. But so long as everything functions according to plan, the shelves stay full and the profits stay high. On our hypothetical piece of paper, a straight line unimpeded is the supply chain functioning properly, and the line ends in massive profits. But this line can only follow one way to that destination, and it’s straight as an arrow. Put anything in its way—any disruption to the system, in other words—and it stops. It can’t go around. It has no ability to bend, to curve, to find a different way. It only knows the one.
Now, any number of systems reliant on the functioning of the industrial economy can be drawn within the core of this piece of paper. Some must stay straight and will stop if they hit any blockade. Others are more resilient and thus can veer around a bit. They’re capable of twisting and turning and finding new ways. But even these are bound by the margins. Those are lines they simply cannot cross, and so they’re left with four and a half inches of wiggle room, and a couple of wide and wild, two inch stretches on either side that can’t be entered without the system falling to pieces. That’s because these margins don’t function under the rules of industrial society. Fossil fuels are lacking or nonexistent in these margins, there’s no perpetual growth, waste doesn’t exist and energy usage per capita is low. High technology functions poorly or is absent altogether. Sun and air and water flow through these margins, but not reserved masses of millions of years of condensed carbon. Labor is provided by humans and animals rather than machines. Food is provided by soil rather than oil and natural gas. The margins do not function as the core does.
Consider, still further, that the margins are widening a bit each year. Accordingly, the core is shrinking—and, accordingly, the available paths for systems and processes dependent on industrial society is shrinking. Every year the margins grow closer, offering a place to live but under the condition of adapting to new rules, new ways of living, new forms of personal and social organization. Within time, these margins are going to squeeze out the core and leave all those people, communities, economies, businesses, machines, and so on that depend absolutely on a functioning industrial society with no place to live. At that point, they’ll be forced to either survive in the margins or perish.
If we’re to face the future in a coherent and resilient manner, we’re going to have to broaden the ways in which we can function in this world. We’re going to have to learn to live in the margins. That may not mean living entirely in the margins today or tomorrow, but we have to take our first tentative steps into them and begin the long and challenging process of learning the new ways of living that they require. We’re going to have to veer into them at times, familiarize ourselves with the marginal world, and continually increase our comfort there. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be in a heap of trouble as the core continues to shrink and crowds more and more of us out of an industrial economy based on perpetual growth and increased consumption, and into a contracting economy that demands a dramatic scaling back of our lives.
To engage these margins, we’ll need to change our behavior. But to do that, we need first to change our ways of thinking. Many of us have been taught to live in a world of growth, a world of industrialism, a world of massive available resources and energy. Trying to live differently without first changing the way we think is only going to serve to compound an already challenging situation. This is why, in the previous post, I wrote about the need to move away from the sort of reductionist thinking that is employed and common in the industrial world—the core of the paper—and toward a systems thinking that is rooted in the natural functions of ecosystems. The margins, after all, are wild. They’re rooted not in machine control and the brute force application of massive amounts of energy, but in the elegant and complex functioning of ecosystems. To make our way in them, we’re going to have to learn to think as the margins function, thus providing us the tools to tease out the full implications of our actions—to see the rippling effects of the way we live and to understand what underlying systems support or don’t support those ways of living.
As an example, let’s consider a wood stove. One has existed in each of the three places I’ve lived out here on the Oregon coast. It was the source of heat in the yurt I lived in when I first came here in 2011, an option in the old farm house I lived in last year—which also had available the horror that is electric wall heaters—and an option in my current residence, in addition to an electric furnace. Despite the presence of that electric furnace, the wood stove is far and away the primary source of heat in this house. A good question, though, is whether or not it should be.
One way we could consider this question is through a simple, reductionist lens of trying to suss out exactly how much energy is used by the wood stove versus how much by the electric furnace, looking at efficiency ratings of the actual devices, the efficiency rate of conversion of wood and electricity to heat, or perhaps try to determine the cost of a cord of wood in comparison to the cost of an equivalent amount of heat via electricity. Perhaps we might broaden out this reductionist perspective by crunching all these numbers to the best of our ability and then evaluating all of them in conjunction to try to come up with a final determination. We may even bring in yet more variables, such as the cost of the electric furnace versus the wood stove, the amount of energy used in their manufacture, and so on. All of this is good information to consider, but it’s only a small piece of the whole system consideration of how to heat your home, and it takes only the dimmest account of resiliency.
What if we instead evaluated the two methods in terms of resiliency, in terms of how straight must be the line that leads to heat? If we do that, then we’re talking about a whole host of other considerations. The electric furnace, for instance, deals in a mighty straight line laid down within the core of our hypothetical piece of paper. To create heat, it needs a steady flow of electricity, and that electricity needs to flow at a certain level. As currently designed, our electric furnace would pull that electricity from the centralized energy grid. If the flow of electricity stops, the heat stops. Period. If there’s a blackout, the heat stops. Period. If the bill for that electricity becomes too expensive to pay, the heat eventually stops. Period. If we get far enough into contraction and decline that our rural area completely loses access to centralized, grid electricity, then the heat stops. Again, period. And even if we wanted to attempt to replace the grid-sourced electricity with renewable electricity produced on site, it’s not likely we could do that. An electric furnace needs a heck of a lot of electricity, in heavy bursts. I don’t see any way we could cobble together any combination of solar PVs, small wind turbines, and micro hydro generators—and the necessary battery rack—to make that happen. Not for heat on demand. Especially in the winter out here, which is when we need the heat and when the sun isn’t shining. (There’s an important connection there, we should note.) In other words, our electric furnace needs the centralized industrial economy and the electric grid it provides to produce heat.
Now let’s consider the wood stove. Here we find that the line is not nearly so straight, and even is capable of veering into the margins. Unlike the electric furnace, the wood stove can work with a variety of different types of fuel. First and foremost is wood, of course, but it could produce heat from many different combustible materials. Even if we were to stay with wood, though, the ways that wood can be acquired is far more varied than the electric furnace, which needs to be hooked up to a centralized electric grid to work. Wood can be acquired in ways that are highly dependent on the industrial economy and ways that are far less dependent on it. Depending on where you live, it could even be acquired without help of the industrial economy. Scrap wood can be harvested from the forest floor. A series of sturdy hand tools combined with human (and perhaps animal) labor can take a tree and fell, split, chop, and stack it into a winter’s worth of heating. For us in particular, out here on the Oregon coast, access to consistent and reliable electricity is almost certainly going to go away before access to locally grown wood.
Furthermore, a bit of systems thinking leads us to other advantages of the wood stove. As a concentrated source of heat, it not only can be used for heating the home, but for cooking food—and it can do both those things at the same time, with the same heat. Even those wood stoves not made explicitly for cooking provide a hot surface. If you have a cast iron pan and that surface is big enough to balance it on, you can cook food. Still further beyond that, modifying your wood stove to include some kind of wetback system could provide hot water, to boot, providing you three critical functions for the price of one. In the world of permaculture, this is called “stacking functions” and it’s a way of making the most out of your resources that’s rooted in ecological and systems thinking. The beauty of a wood stove is that—in the simplicity of its design and its lack of high technology, which tends to focus on single tasks—it’s capable of supporting multiple functions. An electric furnace, on the other hand, simply can’t heat your water or cook your food. It’s designed only to heat a house, and it goes about that in a very particular way.
In fact, considering the heating device itself is also a good exercise in systems thinking. Our electric furnace is a single-trick pony, designed to be hooked up to an electric grid, a duct system, and a thermostat. Take any of those pieces away and its functioning is either reduced or eliminated. I know of no way to modify it to do other tasks at the same time as its heating the house (though perhaps that can be done and I just don’t know about it!) As well, the electric furnace is dependent on the continued functioning of the heating coil and the blower, or else it simply won’t function properly. If one of these breaks down, the furnace must be repaired or replaced, and that likely will require parts out of an industrialized supply chain. A wood stove, on the other hand, strikes me as a much more sturdy device. It is, first and foremost, a heavy metal box. It’s not dependent on a number of moving parts, nor is it dependent on a duct system (outside of the chimney) or on a thermostat, outside of the predilections of whichever human is charged with starting a fire. It is a sturdy device, likely to last longer than the electric furnace, and certain repairs may be possible without resort to a long distance supply chain. Its heat can more easily be localized if you want to maximize your fuel by heating less space. Closed doors make for a better barrier than closed air vents, after all. In the starkest of situations, you’re likely to have a bit better a time cozying up to a wood stove than to a HVAC vent. (Not to mention, it makes for a more romantic, or haunting, image.)
In short, the wood stove can take a multitude of different paths to the final goal of heat, and can even provide multiple functions upon achieving that goal. The electric furnace knows one path, and its final goal is limited in scope, as well. As such, the wood stove—for many people—is much more resilient a technology for a deindustrializing future than an electric furnace.
This isn’t to say the wood stove is a perfect solution, even for those of us who live surrounded by forests. For starters, those forests can go away fast. The number of clear cuts out here are already too numerous to count and, as we go through the long and harsh process of deindustrialization, there’s good reason to think that quite a bit of rural land could easily be stripped nearly bare by desperate individuals, desperate communities, and desperate governments. It doesn’t have to happen that way, but it might. So even for those of us living amongst the trees, firewood could eventually become more challenging to gain hold of. Furthermore, a good supply of firewood involves quite a lot of labor—either done by humans, animals, machines running on fossil fuels, or some combination of those. A future in which chain saws and diesel-powered splitters are more scarce—either with less of these actual tools around or less access to the fuel to run them—is going to mean that putting away a winter’s worth of wood heating is going to be a challenging task. Particularly for those who are older, in poorer health, or simply not used to hard physical labor. But they’re not insurmountable, and a good community—and good relations with that community—could go a long way toward getting over that hump.
Similarly, the electric furnace could prove to have more worth in certain situations, such as in an urban environment. While I still wouldn’t want to count on it for the long term, there could easily be a day a few decades down the road when a city dweller still has access to the centralized electric grid but couldn’t easily get firewood, while a rural dweller might be able to come across a good supply of firewood fairly easily but has lost any connection to a centralized electric grid. In this case, the city dweller is obviously better off with the electric furnace than a wood stove and the rural dweller vice versa. This comes back to one of the basic tenants behind systems thinking: that it has to be rooted in the local context, not in theory. Systems thinking is about dealing with the world as it is. As such, my above example about wood stoves is relevant for me, in my rural home, and likely relevant for a good number of Americans—but it isn’t relevant for all. Each person has to engage their own local context—their community, their ecosystem, their personal reality—to come to the most resilient way forward.
A final moment of reflection on this post, though—and particularly that last paragraph—will reveal an important truth. All this talk of wood stoves and electric furnaces is rooted in a basic idea that’s very much a product of industrial and reductionist thinking, which is the idea of bending the world to our will. But one inconvenient reality of the future is that we’re going to have much less control over our world than we’re used to today. We’re going to be making do with what we have far more than we’re used to. The margins are wild, and they’re going to demand more from us than we’re going to be able to demand from them. Learning to live well within and accept that reality is a key part of learning to live in the margins, and I’ll delve into that in the next entry in How To Be Poor.
I lived in the White Mountains of Arizona throughout my sixteenth year. My mother owned a coffee shop there, in the small town of Pinetop. Visiting one summer, I fell in love with the area and decided to move there and help her run the coffee shop while attending the local high school.
The town we lived in was only a few miles away from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. One night we drove into that reservation to meet up with a friend of my mother’s who taught there, to watch a ceremonial dance performance by members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. The three of us were white and upon arriving and settling into some bleacher seats in the small open air theater, I found myself face to face with an experience that, so far as I could remember, had never really happened to me before: being a conspicuous minority. Looking around the audience, I saw no one else who was white. The seats were filled with Native Americans.
Of course, no one took particular notice of us, but I still found myself with a very heightened awareness of the color of my skin and it was a new experience. By the time I had become aware of race and ethnicity, I lived in Vancouver, Washington, which is a mighty white town. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which is a mighty white region. I happily lived my life amongst a super majority of white people and never had to take particular notice of the color of my skin since I was surrounded by other people who took no particular notice of the color of my skin.
That moment among an audience of Apaches, watching a ceremonial performance, briefly punctured my bubble of privilege. For perhaps the first time, I couldn’t simply take advantage of the idea that white was the norm. I briefly lost the privilege of my skin color being the standard. This was a moment of importance because, it has to be said, there is an emotional security—not to mention a literal security—in being part of the majority, whatever that majority is, and in losing that security for a short time, I became better aware of it. The privilege of being in the majority is that your ordinariness protects you. You take advantage of the lack of deviance. You don’t have to constantly question how others will react to you, whether or not you will be the victim of violence, if you will be shunned or condemned, ridiculed, looked down upon or distrusted. It’s a lovely way to live your life, but it’s not a loveliness that’s extended to everyone.
Of course, this claim to the majority can manifest in a multitude of ways: the color of your skin, your religious beliefs, gender, behavior, the ability to recognize and perpetuate cultural markers, material belongings, adherence to cultural worldviews, and so on. Likely all of us belong in some ways and don’t in others. But these forms of majority adherence vary, as does their importance and the protection afforded by them. The color of your skin has a greater impact on how you’re treated in this society than whether or not you’re excited about Super Bowl XLVII, for instance. Yet, while every American varies in their claims to majorities and minorities, there’s one protection, or privilege, afforded to every one of them. That’s the privilege of empire.
All of us Americans live in the world’s current empire, and that simple fact brings a host of benefits, no matter who you are. It provides potential access to a per capita share of the world’s energy and resources far and above any other country. The United States uses about a quarter of the world’s energy and a third of the world’s resources, with only a twentieth of the world’s population. But in addition to that access to energy and resources—which is variable across the population as a whole—our status as the world’s empire provides every American a sense of security that we take advantage of daily. As the currently undisputed leader of the world, we have a certain faith that no other nation would dare try to invade us, that no nation would conduct a bombing campaign against us if we behaved in some manner they didn’t appreciate, that we mostly control the process at NATO and the UN, that organizations such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF will safeguard our economic and political interests, and that we may act militarily with impunity throughout the world without threat of dire consequences. Granted, there are moments when these assumptions are tested—every empire has it’s moments of weakness, after all—but they by and large are truths that we take for granted.
We don’t live in fear of an imminent land invasion of our country. We don’t worry that if we upset another country with our economic actions, they’ll drum up some reason to invade, bomb, or sanction us. We aren’t forced to hand over our country’s energy and resources on another country’s terms. We aren’t under constant threat of regime change or coups funded and driven by another country’s actions. We’re not, ultimately, at the whim of a world power, with a sense that the wrong move could have drastic and destructive consequences. That is an immense privilege, and it’s something that all Americans are blessed with.
I’m 32 years old. I didn’t live through the Cold War or the Cuban Missile Crisis. I realize there have been times when some of these assumptions weren’t so assumed in this country—when we really did live in fear of another world power. But currently, and for the last few decades, this has been a country that has seemed safe from the rest of the world. We haven’t seemed immune, granted, from the occasional dastardly deed, but no one’s been cowering in a corner over an imminent invasion. Even those who might have been drastically worried about terrorist attacks would be more concerned about isolated incidents, not the total invasion and overthrow of our country. We have had the privilege of feeling safer in our land than perhaps any other country on this planet, and that sense of safety is a direct byproduct of the American empire.
I honestly don’t remember the first time I seriously imagined the idea of the United States being militarily invaded and the government overthrown by another country. I suspect I first considered it in my teens. I do have this sense of having been shocked by the idea, though. It was a moment of allowing myself the full impact of a taboo, of an impossibility. And the shock came not from any surprise that I could imagine such a scenario, but from the idea that it could happen to us. That it could happen to me. That my protective bubble could be burst. That I might be subject to the whims of another nation, to the whims of the rest of the world, rather than controlling my own destiny.
Throughout my remembered life, the dominance of America on the world stage has been a given. I’ve taken it for granted that we are safe from military invasion, from bombings, from the vagaries of other world leaders. I’ve taken it for granted that we are the ones in a position of power, and often times I never even thought about that position. It was just the natural state of being and not even something to be considered beyond that.
I imagine many Americans feel the same way, or have during long stretches of their lives. In fact, I think our national response to the 9/11 attacks confirms that. Eleven years on, I’ve lost most of the sense of raw emotion and near-disbelief that the immediate aftermath of that attack engendered in me, but I remember how stunned I was, how stunned we all were. Someone had attacked us. On our soil. Someone had dared to punch back, to bloody our mouth. No, it wasn’t a full-scale invasion, it wasn’t the overthrow of our government, it wasn’t the downfall of the American empire, though perhaps we’ll eventually look back on it as one of the important steps down that path. But it was an affront to our sense of national security, to our sense of invulnerability. We freaked the fuck out as a country. I remember talking to people who demanded we bomb Afghanistan into nothing. I remember the solemn assertions from a variety of national figures—political and otherwise—that we would hunt down and kill the people who had done this. I remember yet more dramatic and crazed claims. I remember the glazed looks of disbelief. I worked at Fred Meyer at the time, in the electronics department, and I was closing the night of September 11th. All the TVs were on and, of course, they all sported coverage of the attack and its aftermath. Throughout the night, there would at any one time be at least a few shoppers standing in front of the TVs, their eyes a bit glazed, just taking in what had occurred. We talked about it a bit. All of it seemed to come down to this sense of disbelief and, underneath that, a profound anger.
I bet a number of people saw Jon Stewart’s monologue on The Daily Show shortly after the 9/11 attacks. I recommend watching it above, even if you’ve already seen it. I still find it a remarkable speech; it overwhelmed me when it first aired. It’s powerful, raw, restrained and hopeful. There’s an anger in it, yes, but it’s quiet—far more quiet than most people’s anger during that time. It’s hard to watch, too, as Stewart is consistently overcome by emotion. It’s eloquent and heartening. But more than all that, it over and over again is an incantation. Stewart assures us during his speech that the American empire still stands, that we’re still the world’s good. “That’s really what this whole situation is about. It’s the difference between closed and open. It’s the difference between free and . . . burdened,” he says, invoking the freedoms of speech we live with here in America and contrasting it with the attackers and their assumed beliefs. Toward the end of the speech, he assures us, “We’ve already won. They can’t–it’s, it’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.” And he closes on an incantation of imagery, noting that the view from his apartment, once the World Trade Towers, is now the Statue of Liberty. It’s intensely poetic—and it’s a final assurance, as well. America stands. Our safety stands. This too shall pass.
We all needed that at the time, and I think it’s why his speech is so enduring and was so celebrated when it first aired. Plenty of people assured us, but a number of them did it less eloquently, in far more crass terms. Many appealed to claims of power, of the certainty that we would destroy our opponents. But Stewart instead evoked our national myths with an eloquence and certainty. He justified our lost sense of security and promised its return. And at the time, reeling from a sudden sense of vulnerability and the emotional sting of having been proclaimed wrong and evil—even if we denied it vehemently—we needed nothing more than the return of our sense of security and the assurance that we deserved that security.
One of the most rejected ideas in our society is the idea that we’re vulnerable. We reject it as an empire would, certain in our power over the rest of the world. We reject it in the way we live, insisting that we can carry on forever as we do today, that the American way of life is non-negotiable. We reject the idea that we’re vulnerable to the natural systems that sustain us or that we have any need or responsibility to limit the way we impact them. We reject that there are any limits whatsoever for us that can’t be overcome with technology and ingenuity, which is ultimately a rejection of any sense of vulnerability. I can’t help but think that this refusal to accept limitation and vulnerability is rooted in good part in our empire and the sense of security and invulnerability it so often affords us. It’s an unthinking rejection, borne not of coherent thought and consideration but in the inability and unwillingness to imagine a world that we can’t conform to our desires.
And yet, we are vulnerable. We are beholden to limits. We can’t always make the world conform to our desires, despite illusions to the contrary. I believe the American empire is on its way out. I won’t venture to put an exact time line on its final gasps, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it sometime in the next forty years, which will hopefully be within my lifetime. I wonder, though, how we’ll react as a people when it does happen. September 11th provided us with a multitude of inspiring, human moments, but it also provided us with a certain sort of national insanity that continues to echo today. That wasn’t the collapse of the American empire; it was just a flesh wound, a surprisingly bloody lip. What happens when a new nation rises to be the world super power? What happens when our sense of security is gone forever, when the perks of empire dry up and are diverted to the new emperor, when we have to come to terms with a dramatically different and much more impoverished way of living?
I’m not a fan of the American empire, but I can’t deny that I’m a fan of its benefits. I appreciate the access to energy and resources, the sense of security it affords, all the ways it makes my life easier and more comfortable. I would like to think I would give it up tomorrow if offered the opportunity, but I don’t know for sure if that’s true. I do believe, though, that we’ve reached the point at which it makes more sense for us to walk away from our empire rather than try to maintain it. The returns are diminishing and the collapse of our empire is likely to drag us down into a worse future than we might have if we were to turn away from it now and start building a society that can run on more realistic energy and resource flows, at a level of complexity we could better maintain.
But would I give it up? I’m attempting to live a life of voluntary poverty, to reduce my dependence on a system that I believe is destructive and destined to fall apart. I’m attempting to better make my own living, to better engage in my local community, to increase my resiliency by decreasing my needs. But if our empire were to go away tomorrow, it would be a major loss. I’m still not prepared, and I likely won’t ever be. I want to say that I would give it up, that I would turn my back and walk away from a system beneficial to me personally but destructive to so many others, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. The reduction in standard of living worries me, yes, but it might be the loss of security that frightens me the most. John Michael Greer wrote a five-part narrative about one way the American empire might end. It involved military defeat, the United States walking right up to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and the ultimate break up of the Union. It disturbed me, I have to admit, to imagine in such stark terms a complete and utter loss of our security, of our seeming invulnerability on the world stage. What would it be to live in one of the countries at the mercy of our empire? What would it be to have your future so dependent on the whims of an empire and its people?
I can’t imagine.
And that’s the point. That’s the privilege of empire, and it’s a privilege all of us Americans would do well to start reconsidering and deconstructing.
Here in America, we had an election on Tuesday. Some of you may have noticed.
I have to admit, I still love Election Day. No doubt, that enjoyment is derived at least somewhat from the brief stretch of my life when I became veritably obsessed with politics. Bush the Second drove me crazy during his presidency, his policies diametrically opposed to many of my own beliefs and desires. During that time, my already established liberal and Democratic lean became more pronounced and partisan. I worked to elect Democrats, obsessed over political news, threw myself headlong into political blogs, did some political blogging of my own, and lived and died by election results.
It didn’t last that long. I shuddered at the 2002 mid-term results, backed Howard Dean with a vengeance in 2003, watched as he went down in flames in early 2004, got behind Kerry, wished fervently for him to defeat Bush, was crestfallen when he didn’t, rejoiced in the 2006 mid-terms, bounced around a bit in the 2008 Democratic primary, ultimately became sucked in by Obama’s candidacy, rejoiced when he was elected, and then quickly soured on the entire process as he pissed away the enthusiasm and support upon which he was swept into office and instead gave us little more than the third term of George W. Bush.
That’s the very brief and incomplete summary, and it’s one that I believe tracks with a number of people in this country. My relationship with politics is, of course, much more complex than that. I believe in the importance of local elections, I still find great value in the process of voting—as a ritual act if nothing else, as has been talked about in the comments of the most recent post at The Archdruid Report—and I still believe that representative democracy can be a good system of governance, though surely not the handed-down-from-God perfection that America’s leaders often like to cynically portray it as. Yet, I believe that our system—on the federal level, at least—has become hopelessly corrupted, utterly ineffective, and largely a sham in these dying days of the American empire.
Despite all those beliefs, I voted a second time for Barack Obama. Consequently, I enjoyed the hell out of Election Day.
And I can’t help but wonder: Why??
— ∞ —
Well, there are good reasons and petty reasons. In terms of the good reasons, I quite enjoyed watching gay marriage pass in Washington, Maine and Maryland and an anti-equality measure fail in Minnesota. I enjoyed seeing Washington and Colorado legalize marijuana. Here in Oregon, the marijuana legalization measure failed, sadly, though I suspect legalization will pass here in the near future, either by the state legislation or a future measure. There were other state measures that have immediate effects on myself and my state—private casinos, the legality of gillnet fishing, and the estate tax were a few—that all went my way. Local elections, of course, have a significant impact on me in a much more visible way than federal elections often do, and so I followed those with interest. They didn’t all fall as I voted, but none of the results seemed a disaster, either.
In terms of the petty reasons—though there is good in these, too, I think—I loved seeing the defeat of certain odious personalities, like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, Paul Ryan and Allen West. Hell, you can add Mitt Romney to that list; he seemed like a dick to me, to be honest. I enjoyed the election of Elizabeth Warren, who seems smart and empathetic, even if she also is as blinded by the madness of perpetual economic growth as every other federal politician. I found it fascinating to see the further rise of the electoral power of women and minority groups, as has been talked about endlessly by talking heads since the election, and took a petty satisfaction in the slightest of marginalization of white men—a hilarious apocalypse to certain commentators. However, I see a certain pettiness in that fascination because it doesn’t, in my mind, change the overall tragic trajectory of our nation and the industrialized world at large.
The pettiest reason of all for my joy on election night, however, was the way in which it served as base entertainment—as the same sort of competition spectacle as sports. Most of my love of Tuesday came from the simple joy of my team winning. It’s a sad statement, especially considering the fact that I find myself bitterly disappointed in and skeptical of my team. The Democrats are almost as clueless as the Republicans, wedded to the same horrific and destructive ideals of unending economic growth, environmental destruction, and cultural genocide. They worship at the same alter of industrialization, specialization, growth and all its attendant destruction. But they do it with a bit more of a smile on their face and a few throw away platitudes about how we don’t have to have all the attendant destruction, if only we elect Democrats. It’s horrifically cynical, complete bullshit, and arguably a more immoral argument than the Republicans’ argument that the destruction doesn’t actually exist.
And yet, I voted for it on Tuesday. And cheered when that argument won.
Why? Because that argument was my team, and on that bloodthirsty night, I wanted to see my team win.
— ∞ —
I could claim that this was about social progress, the rights of minorities, and the belief that people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of whom they love or what genitalia they were born with, the color of their skin or their religious beliefs (or lack thereof.) That is a seriously motivating factor. I don’t like the way so many GOP politicians seem to hate brown people, the way they demonize gays and lesbians, their too-often dismissive and clueless attitudes toward women, and their apparent hatred of reproductive rights. But to embrace the Democratic party in turn seems to me little more than a betrayal of that agitation against discrimination. The Democrats, after all, are also excellent at creating divisions for political gain (though perhaps not typically as effective as Republicans.) There’s no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric on the Democratic side, casting Republicans as religious fanatics and demagogues who are opposed to the basic nature of progress. Rural and religious people are too often looked down upon. Cultural knowledge and tradition is dismissed at the behest of scientific specialization. College education is a sign of knowledge; lack of the same is a sign of ignorance. Abstract knowledge is valued over practical knowledge. And how about the incredible discrimination based on place of residence found in the drone murders of countless overseas individuals by the Obama administration?
Granted, these are broad assertions about the general fault lines. You can find Democratic and Republican politicians that buck these tendencies and ideologies. Much more importantly, you can find significantly more self-identified Democrats and Republicans amongst the general populace that don’t fall into these neat categories. In fact, in interacting honestly and openly with people on both political sides—and the many who refuse to affiliate themselves with either side—what you most often find is a population of people who don’t fit these neat categories at all, or whom have complex reasons behind their backing of these categories. You find individuals, informed by their own experiences and influences, rather than the cartoons that these people are cast as by politicians of both stripes.
And that, as much as anything, reveals the key to these divisions: each side’s greatest divisional tactics are in their castings of their political opponents, and their opponents’ voting base, as caricatures. Republicans—not just the politicians, but Republican voters—are ignorant and backward reactionaries, stuck in their outdated religious and cultural worldviews, completely devoid of empathy, violently against any social safety net and eager for those less worthy of them to die. They’re rural rubes and suburban hate-mongers who fetishistically cling to their guns, their religion, their hatreds and their fear and stand in the way of the glorious social and economic progress promised by Democrats. Democrats—not just the politicians, but Democratic voters—are elitist, urban intellectuals who hate religion and any sense of tradition. They despise American values, capitalism, democracy, rural folk, religious folk and entrepreneurs. They want to destroy rural communities and economies. They want to eliminate guns and the cultural traditions that come with them, destroy independence, enlarge government to the point that the entire country is completely dependent upon it, redistribute wealth and ensure that no one may rise or fall via their own hard work or lack thereof. They want a completely homogenized culture, where everyone thinks and acts the same and the government dictates all standards of decency.
Those are your caricatures. And guess what? When your opponents are this evil and outrageous, then politics can only be a war. It’s about stopping the other side, no matter what. It’s not about working toward solutions, it’s about eliminating a threat. And so it goes. So goes the theater, so goes the sport in which all that matters is the final score, in which all that matters is whether or not you vanquished your enemy.
— ∞ —
But in the midst of all this sport and theater is the crumbling of the American empire and the collapse of the industrial paradigm. We are running out of our fuels, tearing apart our ecosystem, straining under insane financial and economic policies, and clawing at each others’ throat with the crazed idea that if we can just kill the other side, we could fix all this.
Eliminating each other isn’t going to solve our problems, though. The only way to do that is to change the way we live. The only way to do it is to thoroughly and honestly evaluate the way we live and choose different, less destructive ways to live. The only way we can even begin to solve our problems—even to just stop making them worse—is to be honest with ourselves about our privilege, about the outsized ways we live, about our hyper-abundance and all the ways it destroys the ecosystems we live within and are dependent upon, as well as our own cultures, societies and sanity.
In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes about the need for “kindly use.” In talking of conservation, he notes that we can only preserve a portion of the land in wildness, and that, otherwise, “Most of it we will have to use” (p. 30, from the Third Edition published in 1996.) He notes that only a considered, kindly use of the land “can dissolve the boundaries that divide people from the land and its care, which together are the source of human life.” He speaks of this kindly use largely in the context of agriculture, but also makes it clear that this is a broader concept applicable to the entirety of our culture—and that kindly use of the land and the world is integral to a coherent and healthy culture.
This is a massive question. It is, essentially, the question for our culture. Indeed, it is a variant of the question for every culture: how to live well in the world. Without constantly engaging this question—and finding some successes in that engagement—any culture will ultimately perish. Despite our fervent proclamations to the contrary (perhaps most fervent amongst politicians) we are simply another species living upon this planet and within this ecosystem, and we are beholden to the same limitations and restrictions and necessities of good work and living that any other species is. If we don’t accept those limitations and restrictions and learn how to live and work well within them, we will die out as a culture. It’s as simple as that.
Numerous past cultures have actively engaged this question and thrived as a result of that engagement. They have suffered the consequences and made corrections when their use turned from kindly to destructive. They have made mistakes and had successes, but their continued survival was always dependent on the engagement of that question and the corrections necessary to fall more on the side of kindly than destructive. When they failed to make those adjustments and corrections, they collapsed.
As a culture, we do not engage this question nearly enough in our personal lives and we engage it almost not at all at a national level. Neither of the major parties is asking how we can engage in kindly use. It is not a question they have asked themselves and so it is not a question they will attempt to answer. I could create my distinctions between the two major candidates for President on various social issues and by allowing myself to buy into the caricatured divisions that both candidates so skillfully evoked amongst the population, but the reality is that both of them articulated and fought over an identical vision of America: one of extractive, destructive empire devoted solely to the comfort of its population at the expense of all other creatures—human, animal, and plant—on Earth. Neither of them even began to honestly engage the question of kindly use, and so both of them represent a continuance down the path of destruction. As important as I think many of the social issues that these two candidates use to divide this country are, they are completely and utterly subordinate to the ultimate question of kindly use. They, too, will become irrelevant if our culture collapses under our own destructive tendencies.
— ∞ —
On Tuesday, I voted. I allowed myself to fall into the spectacle and entertainment, the blood sport of national politics in the final days of the crumbling American empire. And, more often than not, my team won.
But when it comes to the trajectory of this country and the industrialized world at large, we all still lost. Because we chose between two people who have not even attempted to engage the question of kindly use, of how to live and work well in this world.
We are now suffering the consequences of our destructive use. We have been for many years. Tuesday was just one more data point amongst many that, despite suffering the consequences, we continue not to make the necessary and painful corrections, not to move away from our destructive use and toward a kindly use. Until we do, our culture will continue to crumble and collapse and our ritual blood sports will leave us nothing but further bloodied, further injured, and closer to death, no matter which side wins.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
Friday morning, I found myself sitting on the back patio of the town house my mother’s rented here in Sedona, Arizona, basking in a warm February sun with a good book and a hot cup of coffee. This proved quite the pleasure for me this time of year, being used to Oregon weather. Finding myself lucky enough to have access to that pleasure, I was taking full advantage, enjoying the easy comfort of a morning with nothing to do but read and think.
The good book in question was The Winter of Our Discontent, which is perhaps a subtle irony considering how contented I feel this winter. Early in the novel, the bank teller, Joey Morphy, tells the main character, Ethan Hawley, the one sentence that sums up everything he knows about business: “Money gets money.” The passage struck me as quite relevant to my discussion here of voluntary poverty and, I believe, gets at a deeper truth that helps to obstruct our responses to the future.
Money does get money in our society and I think most people understand this, consciously or not. Much of our economy these days is about money making money, using money to make investments which then return more money. This is a form of making money very removed from any actual physical goods or services. Think CDSs, derivatives, and the like.
Of course, this entire system of money getting money is dependent upon a growing economy. Money can’t get money in a steady state economy—it can only change hands or take different forms. The sharp observer will note that this correlates to the first law of thermodynamics. The sharp observer will further note the correlation between money and energy. The sharp observer will still further note that we’ve been mining and burning fossil fuels for the last few centuries, layering the energy from that on top of the sustainable flows of energy this planet has available to it, acting as though all that extra energy is permanent, and are right around now facing the peak and beginning of the decline of that extra energy. Due to the correlation between money (or economic activity) and available energy, that means we’re facing the end of economic growth and the beginning of economic contraction.
While that’s a simplistic summary of a complex reality, I do believe the general outline to be correct and that economic contraction is the near-term future we face. In such a future, money will no longer get money. This is true in a few different ways.
First, without economic growth as a widespread, standard reality, the system of credit and debt service we’ve come to think of as normal will no longer function. Debt won’t be able to be paid back with interest because people’s incomes won’t be growing. Rather, they’ll likely be shrinking. This presents an entirely new reality and is going to necessitate new forms of economic and financial activity.
Second is a deeper reality behind the idea that money gets money, and that’s rooted in the belief that money equals wealth, resources, and security. This is an assumption that most all of us in industrialized nations make. It’s the sense that you can always buy your survival so long as you have enough dollars in the bank. Money equals food, shelter, heat, clothing, water, everything. That’s the assumption, and it’s a fair one to make because it has tended, in recent and industrialized times, to be true.
Under this rubric, we could restate “money gets money” as “money gets security,” or “money gets comfort,” or “money gets your very life.” And this idea—so prevalent in our society—works very well to limit our response to the future. For those who can’t move past this idea and expect it to be permanently true, the goal continues to be to make a certain amount of money—and often, for that to be more money than they’re currently making. This is often done at the expense of building any kind of resiliency and alternate options into their lives. If they’re right about the future continuing on much as the present (or perhaps I should say the past, as the present isn’t a particularly good argument against economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system) then their response is a sane and logical one. If they’re wrong, though, then their response is at best painful and at worse deadly, limiting their ability to respond to a dramatically different future.
My view, of course, is the one that says we face a future of economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system. I feel comfortable in that view, based on the simple deductive reasoning that we are running our economic system on stores of energy that we’ll never get back; that we’ve hit the peak of those stores of energy; that those stores of energy will be declining in the future; that all the plans thus far conceived to replicate those stores of energy in a renewable fashion have had fatal flaws, with the most common one being a complete reliance on the stores of energy that are going away; and that economic contraction is, thus, almost certain to follow. How that plays out is not a prediction I’m willing to make. Economies are incredibly complex, and they often function in surprising manners. But in general, I imagine we’ll face a lot of chaos which all relates back to contraction and the end of growth. And that chaos is certain to make the money that we’ve come to think equals our very lives much less reliable and potentially worthless.
But because so many of us are locked into the idea that money gets money and that money gets security, even those of us who believe the future will be erratic and uncertain in economic terms still too often turn to ideas of how to lock in our money. So we look at buying gold, or investing in TreasuryDirect holdings, or buying ammo and freeze dried food, or buying farm land. But none of those things are guaranteed. We don’t know what’s going to happen to the value of gold and if we find ourselves going through a stretch in which economic chaos strips money of its value, gold may be considered largely useless, as well—at least in terms of our day-to-day survival. TreasuryDirect holdings could be seized by the government or the federal government could default. Ammo and freeze dried food only last a short while, and the future we face is not going to be about sticking out a couple bad months or finding your living through domination and violence. Even farm land is vulnerable, as valuable as it is. A floundering government could slip into authoritarian control or raise taxes to the point of being unpayable, and could then take your land. Alternately, your farm land is not particularly valuable if it isn’t surrounded by a coherent and resilient community. Now, granted, if I had money myself, I would happily look for some good land to buy, but I wouldn’t consider that any true guarantee for the future.
Of course, I don’t have any real money, so I don’t speak from complete experience here, but I can understand why those who do have a decent chunk of money saved would like to keep it from disappearing. That feels like security, and you want even more to hold onto it in the face of bad times. But the bad times likely coming are exactly the sort of times during which money may lose much of its function and utility. Again, how that plays out is anyone’s guess. Inflation, deflation, a combination of the two, national default, cratered confidence—it’s all on the table. But likely it will be some chaotic mixture of all these potential outcomes and the end result is that the money economy probably won’t guarantee you much of anything.
In other words, future security isn’t about money—it’s more likely about skill, flexibility, adaptability, the ability and desire to do real work, and community. Future security is not guaranteed under any circumstance. We’re facing a time of instability—the sooner we all get used to and accept that reality, the better we’ll be able to deal with our future realities.
There’s also a dirty little secret here that few want to talk about, but that I think is critical to address. Money shouldn’t get money—at least, not when money has been so divorced from good work, and not when cruelty and bad work so readily makes us money, as is the case today. We’ve created a corrupt and diseased system in which money tends not to go to those who do good work or make the world a better place or simply earn an honest and nondestructive living, but toward those who exploit and dominate, deal in violence, and act ruthlessly. That’s a godawful system to hand our livings over to, and we can readily see the effects of it all around us. The environmental devastation, social injustice, enslavement, murder and desperate miasma that so many wade through every day is partly a byproduct of the money system we have today. Its collapse, therefore, opens up new avenues to make ourselves a better world, even though the transition is likely to be painful.
That doesn’t mean, I want to make clear, that the collapse of our current money system will make for a better world. It simply will help clear some of the decrepit social infrastructure and institutions that help maintain the system of destruction. To make this a better world is going to involve a lot of hard work, contemplation, consideration, awareness and probably a good bit of luck. It, much like our future well being, is in no way guaranteed.
This, however, is the hope in voluntary poverty. If money will no longer guarantee your future, then voluntary poverty is a fine way to begin eliminating your dependence on and belief in money. It opens up new avenues for a better way of life, before the outside happenings of society, politics and the economy impose those new avenues on you, whether you’re ready for them or not. It also allows you to begin to explore better ways to live, and they are abundant. Stripping yourself of the trappings of wealth while you reacquaint yourself with the natural world around you, the enrichment of honest community, the deep satisfaction of good and healthy work well done, the time to think and relax, and the pleasure of clear-eyed observation makes for a particularly good life—and one that, after what can admittedly be a rough transition, proves radically reaffirming in our very disturbed world. Learning new skills and beginning the long process of taking back the responsibility of your own living provides a meaning and purpose that the industrialized, exploitative economy almost never offers.
Learning, in fact, that you are an actual, unique and beautiful, joyful, caring and thoughtful, talented and living and vital human being—someone who enriches this world and can provide so much to so many—and that you are a part of a broader world containing billions upon billions of other creatures that are as unique, as beautiful, as heartening and mystical and compelling as you; learning that all of us have the capacity to be something more than identical pegs to be slotted into identical slots to keep the machinery of wealth-via-destruction functioning—and that, goddamn it, this world that constantly exists and functions and breathes and beats with a pulse more powerful than any of us can comprehend is so filling and engrossing and substantial and nurturing, providing so much happiness and connection; learning that this world—our world—is there, waiting, and will fill us up if only we go outside and confront it honestly and let it in and begin the process of understanding it, and our true relationship with it, and all the ways in which we can break and betray that relationship, and all the ways in which we can stop that betrayal; well, learning all that provides the actual life that we so desperately try to purchase with money every single day.
And so you know what? It’s time that money no longer gets money. Not money as we know it today. It’s time that we transition to something very different, to a life that is built on skill and good work, community and friendship and the constant, honest evaluation of our place within and behavior toward our world. That’s a transition that’s coming, by necessity if nothing else. It may go bad. It hopefully will go right. Either way, there are no guarantees other than that the transition will be harsh and painful at times. But this world as we know it today is harsh and painful and to be afraid of walking away from it is not only an abdication of responsibility, but it’s a cruelty to ourselves. It’s a condemnation. And at this point, I don’t think we can afford any more condemnations.
A society and economy built on the work of uniquely skilled people, on caring community, even on the travails of being human in a challenging but joyful world, is better than one built on ill-gotten money. A society and economy with dramatically less material goods and comfort but with the predominance of good and necessary work, and the honesty of getting by and making do, is better than one brimming with luxuries bought with ill-gotten money. A society and economy built on skills that provide the means of life, physical labor, and the ability to work within the planet’s natural flows of energy and resources is better than one in which ill-gotten pieces of paper determine who lives well, who lives poor, and who dies or is murdered.
Voluntary poverty offers a way for those of us living in the very distorted world of industrialization to begin moving toward that better world. It’s a way for us to learn a new sum of our business knowledge—a sum that doesn’t state that “money gets money,” but states something very different, something much more humane, something much more caring and honest, and something that provides a good life which can’t be casually purchased but instead must be gained through good work and community.
A life, in other words, that must be gained not through money, but through our humanity.
This is Part Two of the How To Be Poor introduction. Read Part One and Part Three.
In this introduction and in the coming series of How To Be Poor posts, you’ll find that I’m arguing for voluntary poverty, as opposed to voluntary simplicity. This is deliberate. I don’t advocate for voluntary simplicity, at least not in the way it’s commonly thought about, because it often deals in a very American middle class form of simplicity. That sort of simplicity isn’t necessarily about being poor or even using less energy and resources, but is much more rooted in a particular and popular myth I feel needs to be better addressed in our society.
To get there, I want to talk about the last couple days. I arrived in Portland Friday evening, after a day of taking care of chickens, hauling wood and mucking out pig stalls, and my life has been anything but simple in the previous 24 hours. As is my tendency, I made some scattered and last minute plans with a variety of friends, trying to place different people in different time slots on a moment’s notice, texting and calling and changing plans, then changing them back, then coming up with something entirely different. It’s a ridiculous way to live, and I’m tired for it, and I want to take a nap except I feel I need to write a blog post and, in a few hours, I’m supposed to meet two friends at the bar.
Throughout all of this, I’ve been spending money and utilizing complicated machinery at every turn: texting and calling a variety of people with my old and out of date cell phone that still is an intensely complicated and energy-heavy device; conducting that texting and calling over a massive, industrialized infrastructure; driving my car around town, often meeting people at the last minute, burning gasoline and taking advantage of a system of roadways that’s insanely subsidy-dependent, devouring incredible amounts of resources and energy; sitting in over-heated commercial buildings and drinking craft-brewed beer and micro-roasted coffee, all the product of energy-intensive processing systems and often using ingredients shipped from long distances; eating prepared, industrial food products that require, again, massive amounts of energy and resources, as well as the enslavement and abuse of animals and the degradation of human workers throughout the supply chain. I’ve been in town less than 24 hours, and I’ve already done all this, engaging these systems for my own comfort and pleasure and convenience.
I and many of the people here in Portland understand the horror and unsustainability of these systems. They understand at an intellectual level that it’s a dead-end route, bringing misery and devastation with it wherever it establishes a presence. They’ve read the literature and heard the lectures and marched in the protests. They’ve chanted about the 99% and agitated against social injustice and bemoaned the easy destruction of our environment. And when I write “they,” I include myself in that designation, both as someone who is here in the city now and as someone who has lived here in years past and happily partaken in all these same devastating systems.
Understanding the shortcomings and terrors of these systems, many of the people here advocate for and desire different systems. They don’t want to be a participant in these horrors and want, instead, alternatives to the dominant paradigm. Due to this collective yearning, Portland has come to be a city particularly adapt at telling a certain kind of story—a story that we hear often, from a variety of well-meaning people and a variety of politicians who may or may not be well-meaning, but are almost certainly self-serving. I think of this as the myth of the sustainable middle class, and I’m well versed in the story.
Originally I wrote out a long list of the components that make up this story, but I actually found a much more concise summary in the lede of an article over at AlterNet. The story, therefore, goes something like this: “Fossil fuels are going to disappear, whether we like it or not. Petroleum, natural gas, and coal are becoming scarcer, harder to extract and a greater danger to the global climate. If we proceed with business-as-usual, energy companies will take advantage of increasing scarcity to dominate the world economy by vacuuming up more money from the 99%. They will be able to ally with military and financial institutions to construct an energy-military-financial complex that could eventually reduce most of the rest of us to a form of debt peonage. On the other hand, if we could possibly elect a government that does what governments do best – build infrastructure – we can avoid a world of global warming and economic collapse by building enough wind farms, solar panels, and geothermal systems to power our economy and ignite a sustainable, broad-based period of economic growth. Of course, this will require a sea-change in the direction of the political system, along the lines of the Occupy movement, but there is too much at stake to throw up our hands in despair.”
This is a fine, compelling, and horribly destructive story. It’s a story that provides ease of mind to every one of us who has a weakness for all the comforts that the dominant system provides us while simultaneously tearing apart our planet and normalizing cruelty toward billions of humans and non-human creatures alike. This story—this myth—is dangerous because, while it provides the illusion of personal responsibility by telling us that we need a massive effort “along the lines of the Occupy movement” to elect a government that will provide us this utopian future, it ultimately absolves us of all responsibility for our current reality by assuring us that “we can avoid a world of global warming and economic collapse by building enough wind farms, solar panels, and geothermal systems to power our economy and ignite a sustainable, broad-based period of economic growth.” In other words, if we find ourselves facing an impoverished future of environmental devastation, catastrophic climate change, and dramatically reduced standards of living, and failing public health, it’s not because we dove full bore into the easy lives of massive overconsumption and resource depletion, but because we failed to elect the correct elites and thus were the victim of being denied our birthright—our outsized, yet still somehow sustainable existence of crass consumption, easy luxury and unending comfort.
This is the sort of storytelling that keeps us from honestly addressing our very pressing problems. As long as we continue to think that we’re above this planet and its physical processes—that human ingenuity, a phrase I’m quite sick of, somehow places us outside of and unbeholden to the laws of physics—we’re going to look for and assume easy answers, and we’re going to suffer as a result. The sooner we realize that we are of this planet, a part of it, a species upon it like every other species upon it, and that we must work within the same natural and physical realities as these other species do, the sooner we can begin to live well and improve the outlook of our future. If we’re going to live sustainably, then that means living within the planet’s natural flows of energy and using the planet’s resources at a sustainable rate—and using a small enough percentage that the planet is still able to support the billions of other plants and animals that help make up the healthy and functioning ecosystems upon which we depend. That means using orders of magnitude less energy and resources than we do now, which means a wholesale change in the way the populations of industrialized nations live.
This doesn’t mean building a huge infrastructure of solar panels and wind farms and geothermal systems and then using all that energy to pay the craftswoman down the street $20 an hour to make knick-knacks out of biodegradable, corn-based plastic and FSC-certified wood. That’s the absurd fantasy world of the sustainable middle class. A real sustainable world would mean that the populations of industrialized nations live much more like the populations of what we charmingly refer to as “third world” nations. It means living very basically, living poor, radically downsizing our lives and our resource and energy usage, and figuring out how to do that well. It can be done well and it can still provide a relatively comfortable and enjoyable life. The sooner we realize that and dedicate ourselves to the process of learning that, the better off we’ll all be.
If, instead, we continue to tell ourselves stories about a magical, sustainable future in which we all have electric cars and the ability to travel vast distances in small amounts of time and for little money, we all have well-paying jobs in which we don’t actually create things of use, all the energy is there for the taking so long as we elect the proper government that’s willing to build the proper infrastructure, or that so long as our coffee is microroasted and our beer is microbrewed, our grocery stores are locally owned and stocked with industrially-produced but organic food, and that the new wing of the local co-op was made out of cob and recycled wine bottles, then we can continue to indulge in outsized luxury and comfort and everything will be fine—well, then, we’re going to dive as full bore into our future disaster as we have into careless energy and resource depletion. As fantastic as I think a building made out of cob and recycled wine bottles is, it’s not going to allow us to otherwise live our lives unchanged. That’s a bedtime story that’s putting us to sleep at the exact time we most need to be wide awake.
This is the difference, in my mind, between voluntary poverty and voluntary simplicity. Voluntary simplicity seems very much to me a movement co-opted by the myth of the sustainable middle class. Poverty was not seen as particularly attractive, so instead it became simplicity. You can still buy your way to happiness, it’s just a slightly different happiness than what the mainstream prescribes. Voluntary poverty, on the other hand, is brutally honest. There’s no getting around the word poverty—it means less money, less energy, less resources. It means doing without and making do. It means you can’t buy your way out of your predicament, and that instead you have to learn how to live in a fundamentally different way. It means less comfort and luxury, and learning how to live well with that.
Voluntary simplicity, in other words, is the electric car. Voluntary poverty is walking to where you need to go. Walking is honesty. The electric car is storytelling. That’s the difference, and it’s a critical one.
When I wrote my post about Portland a couple months ago, that storytelling is what I was referring to. A big part of the reason I find it so frustrating is because I’ve believed that story. I’ve acted out that story, lived my life according to it. I’ve spent much of my life beholden to it, indulging in it, and I look back on that with a certain amount of chagrin. As frustrating as that can be for me, though, it also needs to be a source of education—an awareness which I use to push myself further into voluntary poverty, into what seems a more appropriate way of living. Every time I return to this city—this city that I really do, in many ways, love—I find myself slipping back into that story and the easy comforts it provides. I do this with a mix of awareness and abandon, sometimes with the personal understanding that I am allowing myself this comfort and that, while not benign or ideal, it is a reality I’m acquiescing to at that moment. However, that can’t be the end of the story. That in itself is a luxury and indulgence, and it can very easily become the same indulgence with which we entertain the myth of the sustainable middle class. At that point it becomes dangerous, self-defeating and a threat to a life well lived.
This as well, then, is the context of my current work. And that is going to be much the context of this series of posts on voluntary poverty. I’m at the beginning of a very specific and personal journey. I think there are lessons I’ve already learned that will be helpful to others, and I suspect I’ll learn many more lessons that will be of further help. In part three of this introduction, I’ll talk more about my personal situation, my plans for the future, how I think that relates to my readers, and my specific plans for this series going forward.
This is Part One of the How To Be Poor introduction. Read Part Two and Part Three.
We face an uncertain future. I may sound like a broken recording in saying this again and again, but it’s true. We find ourselves having recently passed peak conventional oil, soon to pass peak liquids fuels, and facing down fast-approaching peaks of natural gas and coal. On top of that, we’re putting incredible strain on the environment, depleting the ancient aquifers that provide so much of our drinking and irrigation water, losing unimaginable quantities of top soil every year, destroying our forests, altering our climate, and helping to create a significant increase in the occurrence of extreme weather events. Considering that much of our national and global infrastructure—the sort of infrastructure that both supports seven billion people on this planet and also provides many of the comforts that we associate with an industrialized way of life—is intrinsically tied to various forms of geography that tend to be effected by major weather events (imagine roads, power lines and sewer lines all running along rivers, for instance) we are facing a present and increasingly-problematic future of degrading and crumbling infrastructure. We also are facing a future with far less available energy, far less available resources and far less money with which to rebuild that infrastructure, further complicating the scenario.
That lack of energy, resources and money further means we can’t continue the dizzying economic growth that we have come to expect and depend upon for our way of life, and are thus facing necessary economic contraction. Such contraction will further lead to a dysfunctional and collapsing financial system. This is due to the fact that our financial system is based on debt and perpetual growth. Take away the perpetual growth and the debt can’t be serviced. Take away the availability of credit and the ability to pay back existing debt, and you have a financial system that ceases to function. Projects grind to a halt, jobs become scarce, unemployment rises, profits fall, tax receipts drop, governments take on more debt to keep the game going, social safety nets sag until they’re damn near touching the ground, austerity measures take root, and soon the entire complicated apparatus is teetering and citizens are falling by the wayside left and right.
In other words, we’re facing a world of problems. More specifically, as John Michael Greer has argued, we are facing a predicament. Problems are in search of solutions, just waiting to be solved. Predicaments, on the other hand, are inconvenient realities we must learn to deal with. We’re dealing with the predicament of too little energy, resources and money to continue down the path we are on and therefore we are in need of new ways to live. This is a predicament, not a problem, because there’s simply no way that we are going to be able to find renewable sources of energy that can replace fossil fuels and allow us to continue our energy-intensive lifestyles. This, in other words, is our new reality. It is imperative we figure out effective ways to respond to it.
Some might claim that a cabin in the woods, far away from other people and stocked with freeze-dried food, plenty of water, perhaps some seed packets, and boxes of ammunition is an effective way to respond to an uncertain future. That’s the wrong approach, however, for multiple reasons. First of all, we don’t likely face an apocalypse so much as we face contraction, tumult and lowered standards of living. Our predicament is not likely to lead to a sudden and complete collapse, as that’s not how societies have tended to collapse in the past. Instead, it will be long and drawn out, a stair step process of shocks to the system followed by stabilization, a stretch of relative calm but lowered standards of living, and then another shock to the system. This will happen over and over again until, eventually, we will find a few hundred years down the road—long after everyone reading this is dead—the final ruins not only of the American empire, but of the commonality of fossil-fueled, industrialized societies. Considering this scenario, the proper response is not the aforementioned cabin because we are not facing such a dire situation. We are facing, instead, the prospect of an increasingly poor and fragile society, rent by economic shocks, disintegrating infrastructure, food and energy shortages, the collapse of supply chains, the necessity for far more physical labor, much more local economies, and a general struggle to get by. The closest parallel in recent history, in other words, is probably the Great Depression. Society as we know it is not going to go away over night, but rather keep chugging along, in a highly dysfunctional state, as most all of us become much poorer and find day-to-day life more of a struggle.
Communities will survive, though, and some will surely flourish. This is another reason why the cabin in the woods is not an effective response to our current and future decline. Community, not the individual, is the basic human unit of survival. Individual humans very rarely survive in complete isolation. We are social animals and we make our living at a community level, to some degree or another. We depend on others for many of our needs, even among the more self-sufficient of us. The ability to provide yourself everything you need to live a decent life, all on your own—or between, say, yourself and a partner and possibly a couple kids—is a pipe dream. It doesn’t exist. We need other people—people who care for us, with whom we share an interdependence, who understand the ways in which our fates are tied. We needs friends and family and acquaintances and even begrudging allies. We need a community, whatever form it takes.
In a world lacking in energy, resources and money, however, the scope and composition of that community is going to be significantly different than it is today. Whereas today most of us depend on massive, globalized, industrialized supply chains to provide us most of our living, in the future we are going to have to relearn how to provide most of that on a very local level. Whereas today, we can always buy our survival so long as we have enough cash, the future promises a reality in which cash is much less valuable than skills and knowledge. Whereas today, we don’t have to resign ourselves to the messy workings of a community to guarantee our survival, so long as we have enough of the aforementioned money, the future promises to require quite a bit more communality from all of us, and to require that we deal with all the messiness and annoyance that can entail (as well as the joy, companionship and conviviality.) Whereas today, we can buy all the comfort we want so long as we have enough cash, the future promises a great deal less comfort for everyone, including those with abundant cash, and is going to reward those who both figure out how to create comfortable lives without money and those who redefine what comfort means in a way that requires less energy and resources.
The future, in otherwise, is looking cash-poor. It will likely provide less comfort and far less material goods, but it will provide some comfort, perhaps even a significant amount, so long as we are capable of reevaluating what comfort means and have some idea of how to create it while working with local resources, within our local community, and without much money. That can be a challenge, and living well while being poor is something of an art and a skill. It is entirely possible, though, and it’s an art and a skill that we would do well to begin learning now.
Most of us are either out of practice with these skills or never learned them in the first place. This is a result of the insanely rich and overabundant society that we live in and the loss of culture that it has demanded and entailed. Peering into our uncertain future, though, it seems clear we’re out of time. We must learn these skills now. There’s simply no more time to delay if we want to increase our chances of living a good life in the future, relatively rich with comfort and stability even if extremely poor in cash.
This, then, is the core of my argument for voluntary poverty. If we are going to live in a world that necessitates we be poorer, then it makes perfect sense to learn how to live well in poverty now. However, there’s another important dimension to my advocacy—one that goes beyond the practical nature of my core argument. We also have a responsibility to scale back our lives. We live in a time of incredible, abundant energy and resources. We have a standard of living that is otherwise unknown throughout the history of humanity. As John Michael Greer noted in his latest writing over at The Archdruid Report, “A modern American climbing into the driver’s seat of a large SUV has more sheer physical energy under his direct control than your average Southern plantation owner had before the Civil War.” That is an incredible reality, and it’s a sobering one.
The majority of Americans have access to a level of resources that is insane and unsustainable. This access is also murderous and destructive. We are tearing apart our planet in service of this outsized lifestyle. We are destroying many of our fellow creatures, engaging in a level of genocide that is unfathomable. At the same time, we’re enslaving other human beings, destroying communities, polluting drinking water and food supplies and devastating the livelihoods of billions of people in pursuit of this abundance—in our sense that it is fair and right for us to have this impossibly large share. We—all of us reading this, even if to varying degrees—are destroying our world and so many of those, human and otherwise, who live in it in a maddening pursuit of wealth and comfort and distraction far beyond what we need, far beyond what is fair, far beyond what is reasonable, and far beyond what will soon be realistic. If we’re to confront and recognize these facts—and rest assured that they are indeed facts—then we have the moral responsibility to begin the process of scaling back our lives, of impoverishing ourselves so that we may ultimately live better, so that others may live better, and so we may become reacquainted with an honest understanding of what it is to be human in this world.
And again, this is not just a moral imperative, but a perfectly logical reaction to our times. When I say we must impoverish ourselves, I don’t mean we must make ourselves miserable. One of the problems we have is that we equate poverty with misery. While that certainly can be the case, it’s just as possible to exist comfortably in poverty and to live well with little money. It’s a challenge, yes, and it takes much work. It’s a long process. It’s a struggle. But that’s what this life is, after all. We’re not here just to party. We’re here to learn to live well. I don’t know what other point there is if it’s not that. Why else could we possibly be here if not to learn to live and work well? What else makes sense?
The simple reality is that living poor is a much better way to live well in this world than is living rich. The lifestyle that many of us here in America and in other industrialized nations have come to view as common—that many of us have come to see as an entitlement, so long as we do the right things—is not living well in the world. It’s living destructively. It’s outsourcing our lives and destroying other people’s lives in the process. It’s taking without giving—receiving and returning it with a slap in the face. It is a cruelty, and we have to walk away from it.
The good news is that to walk away from it doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. It can instead be incredibly rewarding and provide a return to a way of life meaningful and fulfilling, engaged and joyful. In Part Two of this introduction, I’ll talk about the potential rewards that await in a life of poverty and attempt to break down the middle class myth.