Deindustrial Economics part 2: Specialisation

Last week I talked about some of the barriers to achieving self-sufficiency, some unhelpful assumptions inherent to the term, and how these might be worked around. This week I’m going to try to persuade you to adopt a slightly different approach – a degree of self-reliance combined with some specialised skills.

I feel obliged to point out that there’s nothing particularly novel or clever about this idea. In fact, having met a lot of people who have made serious moves towards self-sufficiency, this is in essence the path they have ended up taking. I think it is still worth writing about because getting a handle on what some degree of self-sufficiency looks like in practise removes a lot of the barriers to actually pursuing it.

I think the term ‘self-sufficiency’ fails to differentiate between dependence on industrial society and dependence on other human beings, feeding into a lot of the individualist assumptions inherent to Western culture. Severing dependence on industrial society is a worthwhile goal, though is not going to be fully achievable for most people. But severing dependence on other people is neither possible nor particularly desirable.

I think that there is also a psychological element at play here. Striving simply for one’s own survival is a pretty empty goal, and is not likely to be enough to motivate most people, but working towards greater self-reliance locally is far more motivating because it offers meaning beyond our own basic needs.

So if we start with the assumption that some degree of reliance on other people is no bad thing, then it quickly follows that a pretty reliable strategy for the future is being a useful person to have around. Any skills for self-reliance are going to make you useful to have around in this coming century, since these sorts of skills are likely to be growth industries. But the really useful people will be specialists – people with the capability of practising some skill or other that it simply isn’t feasible for most people to learn.

This also ties in to a personal mission of mine. To me, the big challenge of the next couple of centuries is getting through the collapse of industrial civilisation with as many of the skills, knowledge and technology required to maintain a complex society as possible. The skills and their associated infrastructure of industrial society are entirely dependant on global supply chains and cheap fossil energy, so cannot survive the coming decades in their current form and will need to be overhauled, replaced or abandoned. Skills for subsistence will help keep people alive, but a wider range of specialised skills represent the seeds of a new eco-technic infrastructure further down the path of energy descent.

Since energy production correlates so strongly with societal complexity, I think its fair to say that some degree of reduction is simply unavoidable. But if there is the will to do so I still think that there are significant amounts that can be saved. The barrier to doing so is that in most cases it is not presently economical to gain the skills that will be of benefit in the future, and in many cases, by the time it becomes economical to gain these skills, it will be unfeasible or impossible. Today, even if things are getting more difficult, many of us westerners have significant surpluses of either time, money or both, especially in comparison to what we might have in a decade or two. When those surpluses go away, setting oneself up with the tools and skillset for a useful trade will be beyond the reach of many, even if that trade is immediately called for and economically viable.

The other big threat to long term complexity is current over-production. If for several generations, many human needs can be met from a salvage economy, rather than by producing new goods, then unless these goods can be reverse-engineered, when current goods can no longer be maintained the technology will simply no longer be available.

If skills for subsistence and home production is your thing then don’t take this to mean you should be looking elsewhere – in fact, for many this will be a good starting point for finding skills that lend themselves to specialisation. Instead of considering fields like weaving or horticulture primarily for your own production, consider how they could be scaled to provide for other people too. But there are plenty of fields outside of this that should be considered just as important.

Last week I talked about the difficulty in achieving self-sufficiency (or the advantages to not doing so) in certain areas – lighting, communications, healthcare, transport and so on. A return to a peasant lifestyle would mean minimal or no specialist inputs in these areas, which essentially boils down to a significant reduction in quality of life for most people. This is something which I think can be avoided. If steps can be taken now, even by a small number of people, to maintain a little bit of technical specialisation, then this may mean that future generations have better access to some of the simple technologies of industrial society that could be practised at a lower level of technology. I’m thinking of things like radio transmission, bicycles, vaccination – technologies which which could have huge impacts on future quality of life.

For the most part, learning the sorts of skills to maintain these technologies will not make you a living in the present day, apart from in a few specialised niches where you can successfully market them to wealthy people who can afford to pay developed world labour prices for goods. The very reason these skills are at risk of being lost is because it is not economical in some way to practise them– either because they are produced far more cheaply by the industrial economy, or because a more energy intensive alternative is able to out-compete them.

For some people, a good starting point for a possible specialist skillset might be one relating to your current line of work. While it is a cliché that the developed world doesn’t produce anything any more, in practise many people are still involved in producing real goods and services in some way. Obviously your results may vary – its much easier to consider things from this angle if you’re in healthcare or education than if you’re in insurance.

You could consider what your workplace might have looked like 50 or 100 years ago. Did your particular job exist? If not, what were some close equivalents, and in what way did the skillset required for them differ? What tools and equipment that you use today was not yet in widespread use, and what was used instead? If your workplace didn’t exist then, what did people do instead?

A big advantage of this line of exploration, is that it puts you in a pretty good position when wider failures in the industrial economy threaten your profession. Having the knowledge required to adapt to changing circumstances could mean that your workplace successfully adapts when others fail to do so. And even if your work does shut down, you’ll at least be well placed to offer a lower tech alternative.

If your line of work offers no such opportunities for pre-emptive adaptation, then an alternative plan might be to simply choose a field of future expertise to pursue in your spare time. This could be a technology or skillset that you find particularly enjoyable, or you could more pragmatically choose something that you see as being particularly useful further down the line.

Becoming an expert in your chosen de-industrial field is not necessary – this exercise is as much about getting the framework in place now for when you might need it later. At this stage, the goal is building up a collection of the tools (if any) you might need, and getting regular practise.

And of course, if you can get some other people interested, and learn some skills together, so much the better.

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