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.

August 21, 2011

What We Measure Reflects Our Culture

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 16:27

dali persistence of memory

(This is a rather silly post about our clumsy measurement systems, and how, if we were to reinvent them, we might come up with something much more intuitive and easy to remember; skip it if you’re busy, since I have two more important posts coming soon. The image above is Dali’s “Persistence of Memory”, portraying our most diabolical measurement device.)

We humans tend to prefer measures that we can relate to something tangible and permanent, like the day and the year as our principal measures of time in virtually every calendar. We know how big a foot is — in an average farmer’s work boot, it’s a foot long. An inch is the width of an adult male’s thumb, and since that is almost precisely 1/12 of a foot, the word inch (meaning one twelfth) was chosen for it. The Romans had an average walking stride of 2.64 feet, so they called two strides (one stride with each foot) a pace, and measured longer distances in thousands of paces (mille passus, shortened to mile). We measure the height of horses in “hands” — using the width of our hand including the thumb, measuring hand over hand (that hand width is now standardized at 4″). The Romans and British once used actual stones to measure their weight on a balance scale, and they knew the heft of a stone. For smaller weights, they used grains of wheat, or, for metals, a carob bean (which became known as a carat).

This might be a credible excuse for Americans’ refusal to adopt the metric system, except that most Americans have no idea of the anthropomorphic origins of their measures. To me, this refusal to adopt the system used almost everywhere else on the globe reflects their dominant culture: contrary, ruggedly and defiantly individual, arrogant, profoundly conservative and resistant to change. The British still refer to their weight in “stones” (one stone being about 14 pounds); they’ve gone halfway metric and seem determined to go no further, perhaps for similar reasons.

What we measure, and how we measure it, reflects our culture. Canadians somewhat grumpily adopted the metric system, knowing that they’d have to contend with Americans next door who would not. We did so I think because we are adapters, consensus-seekers, and idealists, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Our modern measures are often abstract. It’s hard to relate to pounds, ounces, grams, kilograms, degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit. Some of our time measures, like seconds, minutes, hours, weeks and months (though the month is vaguely related to lunar cycles), were arbitrarily set, and it’s only due to practice and cultural acclimatization that they mean anything to us. The idea of moving to decimal measures at least makes sense because it relates back to our digits, our basic physical way of counting.

What would happen if we set aside the culture-based measures we use and converted to a set of measures to which we can physically and directly relate, and made all other measures decimal derivatives of these basic ‘universal’ measures? I’m not advocating we try to implement this (our culture is so strong that changing measurement systems is almost humanly impossible) — I’m just putting it out as an intriguing thought experiment:

  1. Length: The standard measure of length might be one walking Pace (p), 2.64′ (80 cm, under the current metric system). The DeciPace (dp) would be one tenth of that, the width of your four fingers excluding thumb. The CentiPace (cp) would be one tenth of that, the width of a standard pencil. Anything smaller than that we’d leave to the scientists and advertisers, who use milli- and micro- and nano- to make really tiny things sound substantial. A KiloPace (kp) would be 1000 Paces, the distance we can walk in 10 minutes (though see the comments below on time measures), run in 5 minutes, or drive in the city in 1 minute. Anything larger than that we’d leave to the astronomers, poets and philosophers.
  2. Area: A Square Pace (p2) would then be one walking pace by one walking pace. A small apartment would be 70 p2, a small house 200 p2, a large house 400 p2, a small building lot 300 p2, and the area a farmer with oxen can plough in a day (an acre) would be about 6000 p2 (80 p x 80 p).
  3. Volume: One Cubic DeciPace (1 dp3=1000 cp3) would be about the volume of two mugs of coffee. The spoon in that mug would hold about 8 cp3, which is 2 cp by 2 cp by 2 cp. Your gas tank would hold about 100 dp3.
  4. Weight: The standard measure of weight might be one Book (b), equal to the average weight of a trade paperback. The average person would weigh about 200 b. The water or coffee in your mug would weigh 1 b. Your average car would weigh 3000 b if you’re in Europe or Japan, 4500 b if you’re in North America.
  5. Time: A day is a day and a year is a year. Everything else would a fraction of that, using Internet Time. Time notation might be yyyy.ddd.mmmmm and each day might start at the midpoint between sunrise and sunset at equinox at Greenwich UK. So at that time in Greenwich tomorrow, everyone in the world could sync their watches to 2011.234.00000. If you spoke with someone at that time and wanted them to call you again seven days later half-way through the day, you’d log it in your calendar as 241.50000. If you lived at the latitude of Greenwich your posted work hours might be daily .30000 – .67000 and, while it would be the same time everywhere on Earth, the person working the same shift a half-world away would have posted work hours as daily .80000 –  1.17000. If you took a flight that took a quarter of a day starting at .80000 the flight arrival and departure would be shown as Dep .80000 Arr 1.05000. Your midday lunch break or favourite TV program in Greenwich might run from .48000 – .52150. To ease the world towards a steady state economy we might encourage employers and self-employed to work only five or six days out of every ten, so if they were 3 on, 2 off, 3 on, 2 off, you might work days ending in the digits 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, and 9. Calendars might have 10 columns and scroll either 4 rows at a time (maximum information that would fit on one screen) or 9 rows at a time (to show each of four ‘seasons’ in turn) with the last 5-6 days of the year in a final row, perhaps celebrated as a global holiday. To specify recurring annual events such as a birthday on the 173rd day of the year you might denote it as *.173 and to specify a recurring event on days ending in the digits 2 and 7 you might denote them as *.**2 and *.**7 or simply as **.2 and **.7. We might soon get accustomed to having someone say they would be back in .01 d (10 millidays, 10 md), and accustomed to setting the microwave for .001 d (1 md).
  6. Speed: Normal walking speed using the above measures would be about 150 p/md, running speed about 300 p/md, and city driving speed 1500 p/md.

It’s fun to think about anyway.

Speaking of measures: When I first started my blog, in doing some design for a game I compiled some prices-per-pound for various consumer products and ranked them from cheapest to most expensive. I recently did this again, and the rankings are shown below.

The biggest changes in 8 years? Food prices per pound are up about 60% compared to 2003 (that’s a lot more than the ‘official’ inflation rate of course). Digital electronics are down about 50% over the same period. Brand names cost on average twice what near-equivalent no-name products do, which I would guess goes entirely into advertising, executive salaries and profits. Some of this data may surprise you. All numbers are retail price divided by weight excluding packaging. Foods are in black, household and pharma products in blue, and other manufactured goods are in red:

Coke, large bottle $0.83
Bananas, organic 0.99
Whole Wheat Flour, organic 1.32
Grape Juice, reconstituted 1.50
Orange Juice, fresh bottled 1.58
Gasoline, regular 1.63
Bread, white no-name 1.79
Potatoes, bag 1.89
Pears, organic 1.99
Peanuts 2.23
Lettuce, organic 2.49
Riding Mower, Poulan 2.62
Cast Iron Skillet 2.87
Broccoli, organic 2.99
Bread, sprouted whole grain 3.29
Sofa Bed, midrange IKEA 3.54
Mouthwash, Scope 3.80
Berries, fresh in season 4.00
Water, Perrier bottled 4.21
McDonalds Large Fries 5.63
Chicken Breasts 5.66
Peanut Butter, organic 5.79
Car, 2011 Hyundai Sonata new 6.23
Antacid, Tums Tablets 6.28
Soap, Dove bars 6.67
Red peppers, organic 6.99
Croissants, Pillsbury 7.04
Potato Chips, Lays large bag 7.22
Big Mac 7.51
China Cabinet, Carriage House, birch/cherry 8.33
Chocolate, Snickers 8.64
Pork Ribs 9.33
Salmon fillets, wild 9.57
All-Electric Car, Nissan Leaf 2011 10.40
Cashews, organic 10.41
Cordless Phone, Vtech 2-handset 11.33
Ground Cumin, organic 12.76
Filet Mignon 12.80
Chocolates, Turtles, bag 14.36
Cheese, cheddar 15.40
Bathrobe, Egyptian cotton 20.00
Deodorant, Mennen speed stick 22.67
Electric Bicycle 24.66
Vanilla Extract 28.50
Deodorant, Lady speed stick 29.84
Light Bulb, GE 4-pack 30.22
Guess Women’s Daredevil Jeans 35.60
UGG Women’s Aussie Sheepskin Boots 36.00
Green tea, gunpowder organic 36.87
Shark Cartilage, packaged arthritis relief 38.50
Headache medicine, noname acetaminophen 42.80
Veuve Cliquot Champagne Brut Yellow 68.00
Headache medicine, Tylenol caplets 119.61
Camcorder, Sony digital 158.18
iPad 2 with wifi & 3G 228.71
Camera, Canon EOS Rebel SLR 235.83
Watch, Men’s Seiko LeGrand 274.29
Rescue Remedy, bottle 386.36
Chanel #5 Perfume 3.4 oz 470.59
Emporio Armani Men’s Sunglasses 1645.00

August 20, 2011

Living Disconnected

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 00:30

jack ziegler cartoon

Cartoon by Jack Ziegler in the New Yorker. You can buy his stuff here.

Last year, my article What Are You Going to Do When the Internet’s Gone stirred up lots of discussion and surprisingly little pushback from the technophiles (perhaps because they’ve stopped reading this blog). I thought it might be worthwhile thinking a bit about what life will be like as a combination of economic and energy crises slowly transform the Internet from a ubiquitous tool (at least in affluent nations) to a hobbyist toy for die-hard techies and uber-geeks (kinda like amateur/ham radios were a half-century ago).

The reasons I cited last year for believing the Internet is going to be impossible to maintain as we face the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate and the end of the industrial “growth” economy) are as follows:

  • The Internet is a huge user of electricity and related electrical and telecommunication infrastructure. That infrastructure, as invisible as it is, requires massive amounts of continuous maintenance.
  • During the Great Depression of the 1930s, one of the first things to go was reliable phone and electrical service. The utilities went bankrupt like everyone else, because their customers couldn’t afford to pay the bills, so the utilities as a result couldn’t afford to pay repair, maintenance and service people to keep these services operating. (When farmers abandoned their unsustainable, monoculture farms, they left notes on their doors inviting other migrants to stay and take care of their homes to ward off poachers, and left the doors unlocked. No power, no phones.)
  • Much of the infrastructure underpinning the Internet is owned and managed by heavy-spending good-times mega-corporations, which are not long for this world, and this infrastructure is mostly subsidized by advertising revenue which is going to shrink dramatically.
  • The Internet requires, for most of its value, a huge number of ‘volunteers’ working mostly at the ‘edges’ providing millions of hours of free labour to write the software to keep it running and to keep its content current. Most of these volunteers are people who have a source of income (other than the Internet) that allows them to volunteer this effort in their ‘spare’ time. No full-time jobs, no time for volunteer work.
  • The hardware that allows us to use the Internet is utterly dependent on large-scale, inexpensive global trade in metals, minerals and materials, some of them rare and scarce. You can’t build computers, servers and telecom lines from materials you can find locally. When global trade grinds to a halt, made worse by the end of cheap, affordable oil, where are we going to get these things? And what happens when supply of these materials simply runs out and there’s no money to research and develop alternatives?

In the same article I described what I think we will do with our time instead:

  • Instead of downloading music and film, create our own music and theatre, in live performance
  • Instead of taking photos, draw, paint, sculpt
  • Instead of blogging, write a journal, and meet in our community and share stories and ideas, cook together, rant, organize, build something together
  • Instead of playing online games, organize a real-space scavenger hunt, eco-walk, or bicycle rallye, or play board games
  • Instead of taking online courses, unschool ourselves in our own communities, and learn about our place… or show/teach others what we know (including, most importantly, teaching children how to think and learn for themselves)
  • Instead of organizing online petitions and complaining online about the state of the world, go visit our local politicians, get involved in community activities that make a difference (disrupt, show our outrage, satirize, or create something better)
  • Instead of looking for health information online, set up a local self-help health co-op, offering preventive care, self-diagnostic and holistic self-treatment information
  • Instead of porn… well, use your imagination

For the last month or so I’ve been drawn into a couple of online forums that include some amazing minds — people who are aware of what’s going on in the world and want to work with others to make it better. But the vast majority are either technology salvationists (who believe that innovation and technology will come through and prevent collapse of our civilization indefinitely) or social salvationists (who believe that there is some kind of accelerating global social transformation of consciousness in progress, enabled by the Internet).

Both groups seem to think a future without the Internet is inconceivable, impossible. It’s a utility now, with everyone dependent on it, they argue (notwithstanding that in three fourths of the world the Internet is a luxury for a tiny rich elite, and that more people live in urban slums off the grid in our world than live in the wired or wireless powered one). I can only attribute their myopia and denial of reality to spending too much time in online and media-managed echo chambers, engaged in wishful, “magical” thinking. Tea Partiers, techno-geeks, neo-survivalists, or new age communitarians, we all want to believe that what we want and love will be here forever.

I thought it might be useful to try to describe how the Internet might stumble, try to adapt, and finally fall under a collapse scenario, and what that would mean for us as we make our way through the energy, ecological and economic crises ahead.

Big corporations were late to adopt the Internet as a modus operandi, because they were suspicious of its vulnerability and lack of centralized control. I can recall being in meetings in the 1980s where some of today’s leading business gurus spoke to that era’s industry titans about the need to create a parallel “Internet 2″ that would be corporate-controlled and professionally managed. Because there was not and never could be sufficient concentration of power, wealth and control to bring this about, they finally, reluctantly embraced the existing, flourishing Internet, and most business executives I know are as oblivious to the fragility of the Internet as they (and the rest of us) are to the fragility of all industrial-economy infrastructure. Indeed, they have come to accept the now-popular thinking that because the Internet is “networked” and not “hierarchical” it is all but invulnerable to collapse of our society’s other systems — political, social, economic, educational, and technological.

The first challenge the Internet is going to face is the ghastly debt crisis which is now hitting full stride. As long as people are able to borrow more money, and are willing to spend it on things they think they can afford, we can continue to get deeper and deeper into debt, and the value of the investments on which loans depend (for collateral) and on which our pensions and currencies depend, will continue to rise (as they must, since their value depends on long-term future double-digit profit growth).

But like every Ponzi scheme, it must eventually collapse, as people realize that only a fool would value anything (a stock, a currency, a commodity, or a precious metal) higher than what it is worth in day-to-day use. Once these values start to contract (as their owners try to bail out before prices plummet to what the next guy to buy them is willing and able to pay) it becomes a race to the bottom, as the debts on which these assets are secured are called in (and, when found uncollectible, written off). Spending stops (the US Tea Party seems determined to accelerate this slide); businesses facing a collapse in demand stop producing, lay off their people, and finally close. Governments, facing a precipitous drop in tax revenues, desperately print more money until they lose credibility and their currency gets devalued, slash programs (laying off even more people and creating a crushing burden on the poor and the sick, which has monstrous costs too many to mention), and finally go bankrupt. Then, like the Soviet Union, they will just hand over the keys of government to their constituent states (many of which will, domino style, also go bankrupt and devolve power further to communities, or warlords, or tribal gangs, or whoever moves in to fill the power void).

This will not happen suddenly. The EU may give up the ghost sooner rather than later, and the world may well be plunged into the next Great Depression (read Pierre Berton’s book if you want to know what this will be like — economists and politicians promised “it could never happen again”, but the warning signs seen in 1929 are all around us).

So the first thing that will happen is we’ll downsize — smaller homes (and multiple families in existing homes), smaller cars and scooters, and smaller computers that leave everything in the cloud. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the advent, as chronic deflation and depression endures for a decade or more, of mini-houses and recycled cars that cost less than $1,000, and “free” stripped-down cellphone-computers (what you’ll pay is a monthly contract fee). That’s what deflation does to your economy. It is chilling to think what that will mean for our house, stock and bond investments, our pensions, wages, social security, medical and education budgets. They will all plunge.

While this is happening, we’ll start to get used to power blackouts (some related to energy rationing, others due to power utilities slashing staff to stave off bankruptcy), which will be intermittent at first and then chronic and longer. Likewise communication (voice and data) network downtime. At first we’ll respond with backup generators and older technology backups, but these will not be satisfactory experiences. Businesses and others will simply not be able to rely on electronic systems working, so they will develop manual systems, slash service accordingly, and eventually abandon the electronic systems entirely. At the same time we’ll all be forced to face our Internet (and/or TV) addiction, and wean ourselves off a steady diet of these. They will become luxury entertainments for special occasions, like going to the theatre or cinema used to be.

If you live in a remote area, you probably know what it’s like when the power goes off, and with it essential heating, refrigeration, air conditioning and even water. It’s scary, and the backup processes are challenging, high-maintenance and far from fail-safe. And that’s not considering the impact of skyrocketing food prices, water scarcity, pandemic diseases, global political instability, and an immigration/refugee crisis the likes of which the world has never seen, all of which we can expect to see as the end of cheap energy, and the effects of extreme climate change, hit us. The last thing we’ll be worried about is not being able to get online.

This will happen in bumps, not suddenly all at once, and we’ll get restoration of service and promises of better fixes at first. We’ll deregulate energy and spend money we cannot afford desperately trying to bring cheap energy online to keep our industrial economy fueled. The market will (as usual) fail miserably to cope with the combination of soaring Asian demand for and plummeting world supply of affordable raw material and energy. With wages tumbling, governments will have no choice but to intervene and ration energy supplies, temporarily at first and then, later, on a permanent and increasingly stringent basis.

So if you were able to get your computer or car before rationing made imports and transportation of these items unaffordable or simply unavailable, you won’t be able to get enough energy and connectivity to use them regularly or reliably anyway. Just as happened in Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed (Cuba’s energy came principally from the Soviets and was heavily subsidized), we will, in the end, just walk away from technologies. That will include most green technologies (no parts and rare minerals for solar panels and wind turbines). There will be no money for financing for nukes. Airlines will fold, as will express trucking and delivery service. We will just use dirty energy while we can, and then, as it runs out too, we will finally learn to do without.

In a word, we are going to find ourselves, intermittently at first, and then more or less permanently, disconnected. At least in the way we have come to think of connection.

For many of us, the Internet and the mass media, funded by cheap energy and consumer-fueled advertising, are now our primary connection to the world beyond our homes, schools and workplaces. They are how we find and connect with people we care about, how we inform ourselves about what is going on in the world (some of us quite well, others, uh, not so well), and how we entertain ourselves. Our electronic connections occupy more than half of our non-working waking hours. What will it mean when they’re gone, and we need to find some other way to (a) inform ourselves, (b) entertain ourselves, (c) do many routine personal tasks (shopping, paying bills, personal finance, planning, organizing and scheduling, sending letters, sharing photos), and (d) find and connect with people we need, want and love in our lives?

I think we will re-learn to do those things manually (and, since it will be less efficient, it will take considerably longer), and locally. Our ‘circles’ of people will become much closer and smaller as the world gets very much larger and more remote. And in the process of reconnecting with people and places locally (locally as in walking and biking distance, since commuting to work and going to mega-malls will no longer be viable) these circles will become more accidental and less intentional, and include more people we wouldn’t ideally want to deal with (because the ideal will be too far away and moving away from people we don’t like will no longer be a tenable option).

So we’ll learn to get along, and learn how to achieve consensus and resolve conflicts equitably. We’ll learn to take our time and be patient. We’ll learn to pay attention to what’s here, now. We’ll learn how to take care of ourselves and each other, how to inform ourselves about local matters at a scale where we can really make a difference, and how to entertain ourselves and each other. We’ll learn not to worry or stress about things far away that we have no control over anyway. We’ll learn how to converse, face to face, about things that matter — to connect with each other as mature, reasonable, caring adults.

I’m concerned that most of us won’t be ready for that. Our civilization culture has infantilized us, made and kept us dependent and hence prevented us from becoming emotionally mature, self-managing adults. Most people I know have struggled with and suffered from social interactions as children and teenagers in desensitizing educational institutions, and then again in brutal, hierarchical, competitive workplaces, and in often-troubled relationships with their own spouses and children. A lot of us are still healing from the emotional and sometimes physical traumas that these ‘civilized’ social interactions caused us. Perhaps that’s why online relationships — more remote, antiseptic, filtered and seemingly-safe — have so much appeal to us, and why the prospect of their loss troubles us so much.

The real disconnection in our lives is not from online to offline, but the disconnection from our true selves and from each other that industrial civilization has systematically subjected us to, to keep us in line and obedient so that this terrible, dehumanizing culture can perpetuate itself with seven billion people for a few more ghastly years. And worst of all, we are ourselves both the victims and the perpetrators of this disconnection — we have forgotten that there is any other way to live, and now cling to this culture, and are complicit in making our children victims and perpetrators in turn, out of well-indoctrinated fear that the only alternative is anarchy, terror and death.

As our civilization continues to fall apart, we will be living a way of life that may seem harder and more stressful than the way we live today, but it probably won’t be, because the expectations we have of ourselves and of each other will fall as the technology that has enabled us to do more and more with less human effort will slowly fall into disuse. Today, we can afford to be indifferent or unpleasant or even unfair to people who are on the other end of a call centre phone line, or in a store or government office we will never visit again, or who are asking for a handout on the street, or who work for us in a huge anonymous organization. In the future re-localized world we will have to get along with everyone, because there will be nowhere to hide. That’s going to be hard because we’ve never had to do that, or learned how to do that. We are going to re-enter a world without anonymity or much privacy, where every social interaction has enduring consequences, where we can’t ignore anyone or anything happening in the place, the community to which we belong. A world without judgement or expectation; a world of acceptance and accommodation.

That’s hardly disconnected. On the contrary, it’s an intimacy of connection that many will find very discomfiting. But that’s the kind of connection that we’ve evolved for a million years to excel at. It’s the way we’re meant, at least for the current hundred millennia or so, to live, and love, and be.

If we want to imagine what it will be like in this re-localized re-connected future, we should not think of the people and struggles of the Great Depression or the Industrial Revolution or the Roman Empire or the Dark Ages, since these were all times plagued with the terrible disease of industrial civilization — violent, competitive, hierarchical, imbued with scarcity and suffering.

Instead, we should think of prehistoric humans, or of our intimate wild cousins the bonobos, and the way in which, according to the new understanding of anthropologists freed from the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” Hobbesian propagandists, they lived and live: responsibly, sustainably, joyfully, collaboratively, cooperatively, lovingly, and easily. That’s the kind of re-connection we should look forward to discovering and learning. That’s how we’re meant to be. And how, despite the terrible crises our civilization faces in its final decades, we will be again.

August 11, 2011

Making a Living for Ourselves

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 07:49

US population by employment status: Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you assume most of the “not working” Americans not currently listed as officially “unemployed” would, if they had the opportunity, be working at least part-time, the real unemployment rate is 25-35%. Surveys I have published on this site in past suggest that the under-employment rate (people feeling that the work they are doing is significantly beneath what they are capable of doing) is well over 50%.

By now it should be pretty clear that our economic system is incapable of providing meaningful work for the majority of the population. Real unemployment rates (not the fabricated rates published by our governments) are in excess of 25%, and the number of people employed by companies with over 500 employees has dropped dramatically every year for the past 15 years. All growth in employment now comes from small entrepreneurial organizations. Every month in the US, 150,000 more people enter the labour force.

Yet there is no educational program of any size that teaches people how to start their own small, community-based sustainable enterprise, and entrepreneurial start-ups have a colossal failure rate. Most MBA and Commerce programs provide case study based programs that are aimed principally at teaching students how to be better middle-managers in (or consultants to) large corporations — yet those corporations are shedding jobs, not adding them, every year. Entrepreneurial programs offered by community colleges and community business development offices are generally focused on the least important parts of small business: legal structure, regulatory compliance and record-keeping (or on the ghastly process of seeking vultures who will bleed them dry with “venture capital”).

Partly in response to this need, I published my book Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work three years ago, to explain the six key attributes that differentiate Natural Enterprises from the mainstream of struggling entrepreneurs. The book asserts that these Natural Enterprises are what we need to create, by the millions, so that we can all make a living for ourselves, so we are no longer dependent on others to create jobs for us.

A book alone, however, is not enough. Until millions of Natural Enterprises exist as models that we can visit and learn from to create our own enterprises, we need extensive programs for online and in-community study and for young people to learn hands-on in secondary school. These programs need to be developed cooperatively with local Natural Enterprises in each community — because this learning needs to take place in the community, not in the classroom. These programs would equip both new entrants to the work world and the unemployed and underemployed, to sidestep the horrific, demeaning search for wage-slave corporate jobs, and instead create successful Natural Enterprises of their own, enterprises that meet real human needs in their communities.

The initiative for such programs will not come from educational institutions (too threatening to the education establishment, and not enough corporate subsidies to fund them), nor from governments (which have no clue about how to stimulate employment other than foolishly offering subsidies and tax breaks to big corporations to attract them to their area). And it certainly won’t come from the private sector (which doesn’t want any real competition, nor any reduction in the number of desperate applicants for the few jobs they need to fill).

If it comes, it will come from the same place that other viable, sustainable approaches to major social and economic problems (like the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate, and the end of the ruinous debt-dependent industrial “growth” economy) will come from: self-organized groups of informed citizens working in their local communities.

Natural Enterprises are self-organized and self-managed, egalitarian cooperative partnerships (collaboratives of potential suppliers, customers and workers) founded to co-develop and provide products and services that fill real, unmet human needs in their community, in a way that is socially responsible and environmentally and economically sustainable, and which allows each partner to do work that he or she is uniquely good at doing, loves doing and cares about deeply.

That probably doesn’t sound like any organization you know. Not surprising, since there are not many of them out there now. Most of us are afraid to even try making a living for ourselves (which is just how the corporatists want it), and most of what little is taught about how to start and operate a community-based enterprise is wrong (since the vast majority of existing small enterprises are badly structured and run, economically unsustainable and founded to sell products and services rather than to fill unmet human needs).

In my career advising entrepreneurs I found a few true Natural Enterprises, and learned of others from consultation with colleagues and extensive research. They are amazing places to see. People in these enterprises enjoy going to work every day, love what they do, choose their own hours and are beholden to no one. They are the opposite of the stereotype highly-stressed, overworked, ever-struggling grow-or-die entrepreneur.

Yet what they do is not extraordinary. We could all be doing it. The hardest part is learning some basic (and currently rare) skills and capacities, such as how to find partners, how to collaborate effectively in a non-hierarchical self-organized environment, how to do world-class market research, how to think critically and creatively, and how to iteratively imagine possibilities — to co-create and co-develop an offering with the people who need it, the people who can provide it, and the people who care about it, so that the financing and marketing are provided organically and virally by the community, and so that the risk of failure is reduced to almost zero.

Some Natural Enterprises I am aware of were established more by good fortune than intention: the right partners just happened to come together with the right attitude and right mix of complementary skills and capacities to succeed. Others came upon this success formula from practice — they were bright enough to learn quickly and inexpensively from their mistakes. What we need to do is create a “collaboratory” where we can practice creating Natural Enterprises until we are good enough at it to launch them and to help others learn and launch theirs. This collaboratory would not be an educational institution but rather an integral part of the community open to all, learning from each other using some basic Natural Enterprise frameworks and tools.

I’ve been asked by groups in several communities to run some one-day workshops to help potential entrepreneurs establish their own Natural Enterprises. I’m beginning to think that what they need beyond just than a few days of training is some facilitation to help each group create its own sustainable Natural Enterprise collaboratory so that they can put the frameworks and tools into practice in the context of their own community.

I’m also now envisioning co-developing a “Natural Enterprise Game” to help the members of the collaboratory practice. There is a group I’ve been in touch with that has developed a game called Co-opoly that might fit the bill.

So that makes three “ingredients” to enable a community’s citizens to learn to make a living for themselves: workshops offering hands-on training to learn the frameworks and tools for sustainable Natural Enterprises; facilitation of a critical mass of citizens in each community to create a Natural Enterprise collaboratory; and a Natural Enterprise game to let them safely practice Natural Enterprise formation and operation until they’re ready to launch them live in their community.

It’s an ambitious program, but one I’m going to start to “talk up” both at the workshops I’ve been invited to lead, and on this blog and other social media. I’d welcome your thoughts.

There are some who will wonder why, if I’m so convinced that our civilization is not going to survive the current century once we face the combined effects of the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate and the end of our industrial economy, I am willing to promote and undertake such an ambitious program.

I would answer that the skills and capacities that are needed to create successful Natural Enterprises are the very skills and capacities needed to adapt to and build resilience to face the terrible energy, ecological and economic crises I foresee for the decades ahead. And the citizens of the much smaller and simpler community-based society that emerges after civilization’s collapse will need to relearn how to make a living for themselves in any case. It’s not too early to start.

August 7, 2011

Links of the Month: August 7, 2011

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 04:42

Cartoon by Robert Leighton from this week’s New Yorker. Buy his prints and other products here.


What do we call ourselves now? The word “liberal” has been turned into a swear-word in the US and coopted by right-wing neoliberals elsewhere. The word “socialist” has fallen into disrepute and disuse. And the word “progressive” doesn’t work either — the whole idea of “progress” is what got us into much of the mess we face today. “Survivalist” is too military-cowboy-individualist. “Communitarian” isn’t bad, but is liable to be confused by illiterates with that other -ism starting with the same letters. I’ve taken to calling myself a “post-civilization writer” but that describes what I do not what I believe. “Collapsitarian” or “collapsnik” is too negative and dystopian, and likely to get us confused with conspiracy wingnuts and Rapturists. Likewise “anti-civilizationist” and “uncivilizationist”.

What do we believe in, after all? If we’re going to have a name we can self-identify and organize around, it should resonate with the belief that we have in common. We believe (or at least I think ‘we’ do) that trying to conquer nature and fill the world with humans and their industrial stuff was a bad idea, that since nature always bats last, the human experiment we call ‘civilization’ is collapsing, and is going to end badly, and that life will go on after civilization has ended, with many fewer humans living much simpler relocalized lives. How do we capture that in a word?


No Money for Skyscrapers: James Kunstler (writing in Orion) explains that what will make big cities unlivable once more rapid energy, economic and ecological crises befall us, is that there will simply be no money to spend on infrastructure, meaning that cities’ staggeringly expensive systems of roads, elevators, heating, cooling and building maintenance will start to crumble and then just be abandoned, like a million New Orleans’. Thanks to Tree for the link.

“The Essence of Tyranny is the Denial of Complexity”: Riffing off this quote by Jacob Burkhardt (the 19th century historian who introduced the term “Renaissance”), Flemming Funch explains how our penchant for oversimplification is killing us. Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link. Excerpt:

The part of our mind we’re conscious of, and that we usually identify with as “me”, typically has an extremely inflated idea of its own worth and its own independent existence. That despite that it can only solve extremely simple problems, and it doesn’t even know how. It over-simplifies everything, and it tends to think it is in charge. That simple mind is also the wondrous faculty for paying attention and appreciating life, and for consciously discovering the mysteries of the universe and of human existence.

But when the simple mind gets stuck in the idea that it is in charge, and one of those simple minds end up commanding armies of millions of men, and huge economies, guiding the lives of billions, we’re quite a bit in trouble. When the simple mind doesn’t accept the complexity that brought it about, and it actually believes that its simple ideas are facts, and it tries to act accordingly, then we’re in a lot of trouble. Yes, tyranny is when powerful rulers decide that the complexity simply is unacceptable, and it tries to control it, deny it, wipe it out. When a small group of people agree on a small list of small ideas as being the correct ones, validated by nothing much more than the voices in their heads, life is in danger.

Peak Oil Worsens Peak Debt: Gail Tverberg in an article in The Oil Drum explains the positive feedback loops that will continue to drive up debt to ever-more-unsustainable levels as oil production declines and becomes much more expensive to bring to market.

Well, That’s Not Going to Happen: Magical thinker James Speth of NRDC outlines 15 things that the US and the world need to do to transition to a sustainable “post-growth” society. They’re impossible, unaffordable, and unwanted by the corporatists with the money and power, who are moving politicians and laws in the exact opposite direction. Tell the people what they want to hear, I guess, that if we all get together, reverse course 180 degrees quickly and replicate what’s been done in a couple of small communities globally, everything will be fine. Sure it will.

Reading the Symptoms Wrong: I’ve given up reading and writing about the annual Davos gnomes’ risk assessment report (this gang is utterly immersed in groupthink and devoid of imagination and appreciation of history). But Rob Hopkins of the Transition Movement has written about this year’s global risks report. The gnomes have climate change as the top risk, with a bunch of related risks (storms, biodiversity loss, pollution) much lower down, but they don’t seem to have the foggiest idea what climate change means for the future of civilization. Likewise, they talk about oil price volatility but not peak oil, and about fiscal crises and economic disparity but not a great depression. And they suggest that all these risks are somehow interlinked, but don’t have sufficient grasp of complexity theory to know how to look at combined risks. It’s a case of “what gets measured doesn’t get done.” That would require courage and serious thinking. Thanks to David Hodgson for the link.

Bringing Dark Mountain and Transition Together: Dougald Hine, co-author of the brilliant Dark Mountain Manifesto, cites yours truly in an article inviting Transition UK members to the second Uncivilization festival in Hampshire, UK.

Which health supplements probably work for most people (top) and which probably don’t (bottom), per qualifying PubMed and Cochrane published scientific studies, from InformationIsBeautiful.


Bike Repair for Dummies: There’s an iPhone App for that.

Basic Website Design: A free video crash course in HTML and CSS.

Permaculture Goes Mainstream: At least, it’s been written about by the NYT. Thanks to Tree for the link.


I’ll Have a Side of Unsustainability With That: “The Sure Cure for Debt Problems is Economic Growth” Huh? The NYT still doesn’t get it.

Why Americans Can’t Afford Good Food: David Sirota explains how government subsidies of unhealthy food are making us sick. Excerpt:

Lawmakers whose campaigns are underwritten by agribusinesses have used billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize those agribusinesses’ specific commodities (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.) that are the key ingredients of unhealthy food. Not surprisingly, the subsidies have manufactured a price inequality that helps junk food undersell nutritious-but-unsubsidized foodstuffs like fruits and vegetables. The end result is that recession-battered consumers are increasingly forced by economic circumstance to “choose” the lower-priced junk food that their taxes support.

DARPA Recruits Civilians to Build Starship: Yup, the budget-bloated US military technology agency has a new fun-and-games website to promote its plan to get civilians to help it build a “starship” within 100 years. DARPA’s sole stated mission (per its website): US military technology superiority. Bad enough the military is recruiting adolescents on World of Warcraft.

Obama Shows His Real Face: Ilargi predicted exactly what the last-minute US debt deal would be, and what it will mean: A faster and deeper depression, and another total capitulation to the rich and the corporatists pulling the strings of the GOP/Tea Party puppets. Will the downgrading of US government securities by S&P as a result make a difference? Probably not. Denial runs deep, and this deal merely ratchets the industrial economy a notch tighter, at a time it has nothing left to give.

Tar Sands Watch: You probably know that stopping the Alberta Tar Sands is one of my two (along with stopping factory farming) pet activist projects. Bill McKibben and the usual enviro protest gang are marching on Washington DC later this month to try to get Obama to block approval for the Keystone pipeline that will carry the sludge to US refineries. There’s a new anti-tar-sands website. And Earth First! demonstrators occupied the office of the Montana governor to protest road rights-of-way given to tar sands construction equipment. We need much more effective tactics.

Harper Censors Scientists and Artists Who Don’t Agree With Him: The extreme right-wing Canadian PM has put a gag order on scientists reporting findings that corporatists won’t like. This has become such a pattern that even the newspapers that support him are up in arms about this.

“Really Macho Molecular Biotech”: Biologists are messing with the DNA of E-Coli bacteria. Who knows what they’ll come up with? Or down with?

Wait, Did the USDA Just Deregulate All New Genetically Modified Crops?: Tom Philpott for Mother Jones: “In a surprise move, the agency green-lights Roundup Ready lawn grass—and perhaps much, much more.”

Did Murdoch Create Climategate?: Keith Olbermann reports (at the end of this report) that the criminal Murdoch empire appears to have been behind the hacking that led to the Climategate scandal that revealed alleged unprofessional e-mails sent between climate scientists, and gave (until it was debunked) unwarranted credibility to climate change deniers just before a major climate change conference. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian for the link. Olbermann also had a scathing rant on the debt “settlement”.

The Curious Case of WTC Building 7: A decade after 9/11, the reason for the collapse, 8 hours after the twin towers came down, of the 47-story Building 7, remains unsolved. It was not even mentioned in the 9/11 commission report.

(Original source of this poster unknown, possibly Johnnie Moore.)


We Could’ve Had the Moon: But we got Afghanistan instead. Thanks to Stephen Downes for the link.

Grade Creep: Why your kid’s A average means nothing these days.

Macaque Steals Camera, Takes Own Pictures: Good self-portraits take intelligence and skill, but it seems a no-brainer to this monkey. Thanks to Karen HayDraude for the link.

Isaac Newton Invented the Cat Flap Door: And other things you probably don’t know about cats.

How to Immobilize a Cat: Vet uses a spring clip on the nape of the neck to simulate mother’s lift-grip. Thanks to Liz Lawley for the link.

Citizen Forecloses on Deadbeat Bank: You probably heard about this by now, but a Florida family successfully foreclosed on a local Bank of America branch which owed them legal costs and punitive damages for wrongly issuing foreclosure proceedings against them (they had no mortgage), when the bank was tardy in paying up. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian (and several others) for the link.

The Backfire Effect: David McRaney explains why, when we hear something that reinforces what we believe, we accept it uncritically, but when we hear something that contradicts what we believe, it actually reinforces our belief to the contrary. Thanks to Tree for the link.

That Truck Driver You Flipped Off? Let Me Tell You His Story: A moving, true story about one man’s tragic life, and about the need to think twice before we get angry at fellow citizens when so many are suffering. Thanks to Bill Tozier for the link.


From Jessica Hische: “The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”

From Michael J. Fox in A Funny Thing Happened… (thanks to Marc Hudson and Edgerider for the link):

Before I continue with my own personal story, let me give you some idea of where I’m heading. It’s all about control. Control is illusory. No matter what university you go to, no matter what degree you hold, if your goal is to become master of your own destiny, you have more to learn. Parkinson’s is a perfect metaphor for lack of control. Every unwanted movement in my hand or arm, every twitch that I cannot anticipate or arrest, is a reminder that even in the domain of my own being, I am not calling the shots. I tried to exert control by drinking myself to a place of indifference, which just exacerbated the sense of miserable hopelessness.

I always find it ironic when people refer to me and my situation as “the fight of his life,” or describe me as a “battler” or “engaged in a struggle.” None of these terms apply to the way that I now approach my disease. The only way I could win – if winning means achieving and maintaining a happy and balanced life – was to surrender, and I took the first baby steps toward that victory by admitting powerlessness over alcohol.

Sober didn’t mean better, not right away. Far from it. There were periods of time when I spent hours and hours submerged in the bathtub, a sort of symbolic retreat back to the womb. When I wasn’t just trying to keep my head below water, the rest of those first couple of years without drinking were like a knife fight in a closet. With no escape from the disease, its symptoms and challenges, I was forced to resort to acceptance. A piece of wisdom I picked up along the way became the basis of a liberating new approach to life: “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectation.”

And on the same subject, from Leo Babauta (thanks to David Gurteen for the link):

How do we live our lives once we let go of the illusion [that we’re in control]?

We stop setting goals, and instead do what excites us.

We stop planning, and just do.

We stop looking at the future, and live in the moment.

We stop trying to control others, and focus instead on being kind to them.

We learn that trusting our values is more important to [deciding what we should do] than desiring and striving for certain outcomes.

We take each step lightly, with balance, in the moment, guided by those values and what we’re passionate about … rather than trying to plan the next 1,000 steps and where we’ll end up.

We learn to accept the world as it is, rather than being annoyed with it, stressed by it, mad at it, despaired by it, or trying to change it into what we want it to be.

We are never disappointed with how things turn out, because we never expected anything — we just accept what comes.

From Bill Tozier, about co-work as the essence of true, sustainable entrepreneurship:

It’s not about “work” at all. Real coworking is about the “co-” part, about being together. Pride. Like-mindedness. About avoiding the risks and vicissitudes of sitting at work by yourself, not being exposed to the externalities of real life by yourself, about not reinventing the wheel by yourself every time a computer acts weird or a contract gets confusing or a lawsuit pops up or your dog needs a play date or you have too much work.

And (because this comes up) it’s not about being some kind of consensus-driven co-op, either. We remain independent, or we lose our self-definition completely and fall back to being mere amateurs with “lifestyle businesses”.

Nope. Coworking is a way of eating entropy. Redirecting risk using community dynamics. If you want to think about it in a confrontational way, it’s about co-opting the same social design patterns—colocation, team formation, complementary skillsets, tacit knowledge banking, and collaborative risk balancing—that corporations bring to bear against us.

From Tim DeChristopher, outrageously sentenced to two years in jail for disrupting Bush’s crown land oil and mineral right sell-off auction by bidding amounts far beyond what he could afford to pay, at his sentencing (thanks to several readers for sending this link):

I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me. If you side with Mr Huber and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away. I certainly don’t want that. I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false. I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them. You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path. You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing. You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the BLM. You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.

From Charles P. Pierce in “The Bomb That Didn’t Go Off“: (thanks to Bill Tozier for the link):

Don’t talk, then, about the wildness in our rhetoric today, and its undeniable roots in that deep strain of political violence that runs through our national DNA, on a gene that is not always recessive. Don’t relate Centennial Park in Atlanta in 1996 to Oklahoma City to murdered doctors to Columbine, and then to Tucson and to the bag on the bench in Spokane. Ignore the patterns, deep and wide, that connect each event to the other like a slow-burning fuse to a charge. That there are among us rage-hardened, powerless people who resort to the gun and the bomb. That there are powerful people who deplore the gun and the bomb, but who do not hesitate to profit from their use. And when the gun goes off or the bomb explodes, the powerful will deplore the actions of the powerless, and they will reassure the rest of us that We are not like Them, who are violent and crazy and whose acts have no reason beyond unfathomable madness. But above all, they will say, Ignore the fact that there is still a horrible utility in political violence, the way there was during Reconstruction, or during the labor wars of the early twentieth century. If there were not, it wouldn’t be so hard to get an abortion in Kansas, and assault weapons would not have been accessories of choice at recent rallies purportedly held to discuss changes in the way the country organizes its health-care system.

August 4, 2011

Technical Difficulties

Filed under: _ Uncategorized — Dave Pollard @ 20:22

I‘m in the midst of doing my Links of the Month post, and I’ve been grumbling and complaining about some of the technologies I’m using and how I’ve been unable to get them to work to my satisfaction.

So I thought instead of just whining about it, I’d ask readers if they have any ideas on how to solve them. Here are five things I want to be able to do, that I haven’t been able to find any way to do. If you have any suggestions, I’d be really grateful:

1. First, I want to be able to search three things at once: (1) the files on my Mac laptop, (2) my Gmail (which is backed up to Apple Mail on my laptop), and (3) my WordPress blog, which is not on my laptop at all, but posted to and kept on a domain server in Winnipeg. I used to be able to do this 3-in-one search with Google Desktop on the PC, back when my Userland blog was backed up automatically to my hard drive. But the Mac version of Google Desktop doesn’t search Gmail, Apple Spotlight only searches the Apple Mail version of my mail (and returns results that are dense and unfathomable), and the only way to search my blog is online (it’s backed up, but not to my hard drive). So to do a search of all three (which I do often, when I can’t remember if/when I wrote a message, blog post and/or document about a particular subject, and want to find it) I have to be online, and I have to do three separate searches. Anyone have any suggestions (non-technical, please)? If that’s too much to ask, I’d settle for a way to download a copy of my entire WordPress blog (6500 pages, about 2GB) to my laptop in a format that could be searched, so at least I can do searches of my old stuff offline.

2. Second, I am looking for the cheapest possible way, other than Skype, to make long-ish phone calls from Australia and New Zealand back to people in North America. I bought the lowest-price cellular long-distance plan from my (Canadian) cell phone company for New Zealand, and the lowest-price cellular long-distance plan from a discount intermediary (Yak.ca) for Australia, and my cell phone bill (for voice calls) was still outrageous. Is there a better solution involving some mix of sim cards, calling cards and/or temporary cell phones?

3. Third, I’d like to find a cheap way to access lots of data (email, maps, social networking) on a cell phone when I’m travelling in the US (I’m Canadian). I have a good plan for voice (Yak callback and travel card) while I’m in the US, but I find it frustrating to do without the data services I rely on on the road when I’m in the US, usually about a week per month. Roaming charges are usurious, just plain gouging.

4. Fourth, I’m looking for a simple way to compose multi-track music electronically and send the tracks to my Mac’s Garage Band software. My compositions tend to include a variety of instruments (drums, guitar, keyboards, strings and horns) and I’m hopelessly inept at playing any native instruments, and don’t have the patience to individually key in the pitch, volume, duration and colour of every single note in my compositions on an on-screen keyboard or similar scoring tool. I have an ancient Roland D5 that I used to use back when it was OK for electronic instruments to sound wooden and more-or-less all alike (I used the software’s auto-correct to fix my tempo and volume errors), but I want something that generates better and more varied sound (and besides, I can’t find any adapter that will take the midi from the old D5 and connect it to a USB port on my laptop). Any suggestions?

5. Fifth, because I’m Canadian, thanks to the freaking DMCA, I cannot listen to any of the free music services (Last.fm, Pandora etc.) that let people listen to more than 60 seconds of a song before deciding whether to buy it. Is there a comparable music service that doesn’t discriminate against Canadians? And, for the same reason, links to US mainstream media clips (like the Daily Show) are (a) not available to me and (b) though I can sometimes find them through a Canadian media distributor (the sites that block me don’t provide an alternative link, just a possible Canadian distributor’s home page), I have to search through whole archives to try to find the same clip, often in vain, and also sometimes wait for a 24-hour ‘embargo’ period to expire. Does anyone know any way around this bullshit? Can I disguise my IP address to make it appear to be a US one rather than a Canadian one? The irony is that the Canadian cable and satellite companies broadcast the US channels live (substituting Canadian commercials), so if I had a TV with a PVR (I have neither) there would be no problem. In the meantime, I’m stuck with what can be found on YouTube, at least until the DMCA lawyer-fascists start trying to block their videos too.

Those are my five technical difficulties at the moment. I’d welcome any suggestions you might offer. Now back to compiling the Links of the Month.

(Cartoon by Mick Stevens from the Cartoon Bank. You can buy his great cartoons as prints, shirts, mugs etc. here.)

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