Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

March 20, 2006

The End of Oil: Collapse vs Powerdown and the Choice of Economies

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 15:24
It’s good to see a few other blogs coming to grips with the coming social and economic collapse of our unsustainable civilization, and talking in practical, non-ideological terms about preparedness for it. One of the best is Adaptation, a ‘zine and blog by Paula Hay, which Dale Asberry put me on to.

Paula recently wrote a two-part series called ‘Fear of Money’ (part 1, part 2), which makes some important points about preparedness. She writes:

We will all face economic problems much sooner than we will face blackouts; we will lose our jobs and our homes long before the lights go out…Preparation effects which ignore economic issues will actually put any given community in a worse situation than had it not prepared at all…Ignoring economic issues as they relate to collapse preparation sows the seeds of community violence, both from within and from without. A community that sinks its energies into preparing for what comes after collapse, without considering the 15-20 or more years of economic hardship between now and the time when hand tools become necessary, is essentially committing suicide.

The basic problem is not that money, markets and commerce are evil. The problem is that these are currently structured to be tools of governance for the ruling eliteóin other words, money is a weapon used to keep the masses in check. We all know how this works: we work longer hours just to stay in place, which robs us of time and energy we would otherwise spend pursuing creative projects, athletics, education, politics, or even our own entrepreneurship. Entertainment becomes our shore leave, and ìstuffî becomes our reward for making it through yet another year with no reprieve, save our two-week vacation.

Economists admonish us that our doom-and-gloom is silly, because the Invisible Hand will save us from collapse. This is absurd on its face, and anyone with a shred of common sense can see why: hitting the brakes after we drive off the cliff will not save us from driving off the cliff. Markets are reactive, and are therefore not an appropriate hope where proactive strategy is required.

This is brilliant stuff, and it’s about time we started talking about it. But I have a few quibbles with Paula’s arguments, and they’re not minor ones:

  • There’s More Than One Kind of Economy: In the first place, it’s not ‘fear of money’ that causes the neosurvivalists to shun currency, trade, and the idea of an organized economy. Money is, as Paula points out, merely a medium of exchange. There is a certain ideological romanticism at work here, and it’s all about the folly of trying to go backwards (to a pre-industrial life) rather than forwards (to a post-industrial one). What the neosurvivalists (she calls them “peakniks” and “preparation paradigm” — versus “powerdown paradigm” — advocates) fear is that any non-anarchic economy will simply perpetuate the unequal distribution of wealth and resources, and must therefore be avoided. Paula is so distraught about this that she is abandoning the Northwest home of the “peakniks” to take up the “powerdown” cause. The peakniks’ error is equating economy with market economy (this is another “it’s the only way we know” problem). Paula is right in asserting that the post-industrial chaos will be worse without an economy. But there is more than one kind of economy, and some of the alternatives don’t require money at all. As my readers know, I’m partial to a Gift Economy — or what I think is more accurately called a Generosity Economy.
  • It’s Coming, But Not So Fast: I think Paula makes the very common mistake of seeing what’s coming accurately, but seeing it as more imminent than it is. We usually tend to over-estimate the degree of short-term change and under-estimate the degree of long-term change. I believe the economic depression that Paula predicts will occur between 10 and 30 years from now (somewhere between 2015 and 2035). A post-industrial society, where oil (and its products, from 90% of what we eat to 90% of medicines, plastics, textiles, asphalt, protective coatings etc.) and electricity are as rare and costly as gold, is likely to take a half-century longer, and come into effect gradually (so it will dominate the last two or three decades of this century) and unevenly. So what we need to be doing now I think is learning the lessons from the last great depression and preparing for the next one in our lifetimes, and helping prepare future generations to do things without oil, oil-dependent products and electricity. Just as the alarmists of the 1970s were wrong to predict a massive population crash would occur in the 1980s, and retreat to subsistence farms in Montana, it would be foolish for us to try to stock up on hoes and canned goods today.
  • We Are, By Nature, Reactive: Paula says “markets are reactive, and are therefore not an appropriate hope where proactive strategy is required”. She is right that markets are reactive, but all systems in our society — economic, political, social, technological, educational — are reactive and always have been. It is human nature to think short-term, and we cannot change that. I think Paula is naive to believe we can develop any kind of organized plan for any major change that has not yet occurred, at least until we are absolutely positive it will occur. Just look at New Orleans, global warming, or our lack of preparation for the next influenza epidemic as proof of that. Paula uses as examples two things we are starting to do that would/will be very helpful in coping with the coming crisis: file-sharing and buying local. But both examples were reactive, not proactive. File-sharing was a work-around in reaction to oligopoly and price-gouging in the music ‘industry’. Buying local is a reaction to growing awareness that the food we eat and the goods we buy from big corporations that travel huge distances to reach us are bad for our health and bad for our local economy. We have reaction to corporatist greed, not proactive thinking, to thank for these innovations.
  • How the Last Great Depression Worked: The scenario Paula lays out for the coming economic depression — “loss of jobs, hyperinflation, dollar collapse, loss of manufacturing capacity and distribution infrastructure, home foreclosures and apartment evictions” in which the neosurvivalists become the new “haves” and the unprepared rest of us the new “have nots”, is mostly right, but ignores some of the important lessons of the last great depression (my grandparents were wise enough to tell me many stories about the 1930s). The workers suffered the most from the last depression, because they were the ones with the greatest debts: the middle class owned their own homes or had relatively small mortgages that they could continue to make some payments against, so they weren’t the ones who lost their homes to foreclosure and eviction. It was the generosity of the middle classes, in giving anything they didn’t need to the oceans of poor, in hiring people they didn’t really need as domestics, and in providing them with food or room and board, that helped prevent a descent of society into civil chaos and anarchy. Most people pitched in and helped each other. Even ardent “not my brother’s keeper” conservatives, when they saw people they knew, in rags, begging for food, realized that blaming the poor for their lot, their unpreparedness for this disaster, was folly.

In fact, I have argued that for many reasons, including the need to make the transition from industrial to post-industrial society, we need to be working now to actively disrupt the existing market economy and replace it will an economy that will be better suited (to put it mildly) to a sustainable, post-industrial world without oil. The four elements of that economy are: peer-to-peer information and exchange networks; local, natural enterprises; personal ‘radical simplicity’ sustainable living programs; and intentional communities. We need to start learning now how to live in a post-industrial society, so that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be prepared and will be able to establish the radically new infrastructure needed to make this economy work. In the meantime, these four elements will also serve us very well during the pre-collapse economic depression, perhaps as little as a decade away. And they’re good for the environment, and will make us healthier andhappier as well.

The key, as we are hearing more and more, is not utopian or dystopian disaster planning, but learning, and teaching, resilience.

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