Deindustrial economics part 1: Give up self sufficiency

So last week I talked about silly things that I have believed, and now I’m going to try to address in more detail one of the biggest ones that I run into regularly among friends and acquaintances – the desire for self-sufficiency.

At this point I should make it clear that I don’t see a desire for a self sufficient lifestyle as ‘silly’ (while I’m happy to dismissively make fun of myself, I draw the line at doing so of other people). Having been there myself I would like to think I understand the underlying ideas and motivations. And I see it as a pretty noble goal in many ways.

The problem with it comes with that as an idea, it relies on a fair amount of untested assumptions, more than a few handwaves, and a little bit of avoidance when it comes to firming up the details. When put into practise, any serious attempt at achieving self-sufficiency will quickly bring these points to light anyway, but considering them in advance will hopefully avoid some headaches later on.

There are more than a few historical examples that spring to mind. The most relevant to us is probably the medieval peasant. In the UK at least, this is probably the closest example to the concept of self sufficiency we have in our recent ancestry or cultural history. The comparison between a medieval peasant lifestyle and the kind of self-sufficiency we might be trying to strive for serves as a good starting point for highlighting some of the problems.

First off, the medieval peasant is not 100% self sufficient. Obviously she barters with her peers, exchanging some of her own surplus production for theirs, though I think we can reasonably consider that part of a self-sufficient lifestyle, so that doesn’t pose a problem. She’s also reliant on a few local specialists – the village blacksmith being a pretty typical example (and also not a problem in this point of comparison) and maybe some guilds in a nearby town, but a more relevant one would be her local lord, or whatever other member of the aristocracy she pays tribute to. What is her local lord a specialist in, you ask? That would be the production of violence, protection and basic civic amenities. Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why some of the American self-sufficiency movements are so interested in firearms, this should answer your question – they simply wish to be self-sufficient in the production of violence and protection services.

Much like us today, the medieval peasant doesn’t get much say in either the quality or quantity of violence, protection and basic civic amenities that she receives from her lord, nor how much she pays for it. At this point a glaring difference strikes us between the medieval peasant and a modern day self-sufficiency-seeking westerner. The peasant’s local lord is largely receiving tribute from peasants, who do not typically participate much in the money economy. As such he is quite happy to receive his tribute in time, or in surplus production. We however, instead of the local branch of the aristocracy, have a modern day nation state, which expects its tribute paid in fiat currency.

So that’s one pretty significant barrier to leaving the cash economy and living from your own produce and local barter. The next barrier is a question of what level of specialists we plan on relying on as part of our self-sufficient lifestyle (if we were purists, we’d be saying none – but I’m not. Even many hunter gatherers have economic specialisation to some degree). Lets start from an assumption of producing all our own food, fibre and shelter, and producing most of the items we need for those tasks and our day to day lives through skills like leatherwork, basket weaving and caprentry (which would require a truly phenomenal skillset). This already leaves us relying on the skills of a metalworker for some tools, but thats fine.

Lighting? If we’d like our self-built eco-house to have electric lights then we need some electricity. Being tied to the grid is a big no, so we’ll need some solar panels, or perhaps a wind turbine or water-wheel, as well as a battery bank and a wiring set-up. Even being off-grid, this makes us dependant on various manufactured products and parts. At the moment those things are supplied by the capitalist global supply chains, as well as reliant on a number of technical specialists for the installation and maintenance of the system. So thats another significant outgoing needing to be met in cash.

How about communications? An internet connection raises all the same quandaries as the above example, and even a telephone, telegraph or postal system needs paying for. Transportation? If we’ve gotten past needing a car, then buses and bicycles still represent an outgoing in cash. Healthcare? You might be able to treat a lot of illnesses yourself, but presumably you’d still call an ambulance in an emergency? Even if you pay for industrial healthcare indirectly through taxation, it still has to be paid for by somebody.

Now maybe you’ve said no to all of these things – perhaps you’re voluntarily giving up on modern life and you’ve found some way of acquiring land debt-free, as well as dodging any requirement to pay tax. Frankly, you’re far more hardcore than I am, and I salute you.

But if not, all of this adds up to a fair amount of cash outgoings. In practical terms, that’s either a lot of our own produce that we need to sell or the need for an outside job. We’re no longer talking about self-sufficiency at this point. Our example self-sufficiency seeker is now either a commercial farmer or a ‘hobbyist’ with a ‘real job.’ The third option of course, is a reliance on state benefits, making our self-sufficiency seeker a long term claimant of some sort or other.

Personally I don’t have a problem with any of these options (though having been forced into it by circumstances a few times I wouldn’t recommend the third one for any length of time). In fact, that’s the opposite of the point I’m trying to make. Since most people on a quest for self-sufficiency will find themselves going down one of these routes at some point, its far better to embrace one of these options from the beginning. A conscious decision about it will lead to a much clearer path from the start too, and re-frames the inevitable compromises not as failure but as something to work with.

So that’s an analysis of some of the barriers to achieving self-sufficiency, and ways to approach them. Next week I’ll be posting part two of this essay which looks at some of the opportunities available to us that seeking self-sufficiency risks getting in the way of working towards – namely achieving economic specialisation.

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Silly things I have at some point believed, and why I’m comfortable with that

I’ve a slightly arcane and personal post for you today.

Coming to terms with challenging information happens in fits and starts. Its an initiation of sorts. And for me, when my previous ways of making sense of the world have fallen apart, this left a vacuum, which tended to be filled with whatever was to hand – or whatever gave it the final push. I’m pretty sure this is normal. New worldviews require a bit of tinkering before they make sense, and its really easy, when a piece of writing successfully persuades you to challenge your preconceptions, to just accept the points it is making at face value. Having had this happen to me a few times now, I’ve started to recognise the process in action – but I still tend to come out with silly ideas from time to time until I can refine the new information and slot it in.

As the new information is taken on board, I seem to have a ‘field-testing’ mode, whereby the new knowledge hasn’t been integrated into what else I know about the world. To all intents and purposes this looks a lot like adopting wholesale a new ideology, and using it pretty exclusively for a while. How long depends on the significance of the shift. It could be a few days, or a few months. Its also definitely been influenced by being more open minded to other’s feedback, and getting a handle on the discovery process. In some ways I’m fortunate in just how often its happened to me – I suspect that some people maybe only experience this a small handful of times throughout their lives, and if they’re particularly resistant to external criticism, then maybe it sticks for decades?

So in a vague chronological order, here are some of the silly things that I have in the past believed

Living off the land, and laziness as a motivating principle.

I was first thrown into the world of being a hardcore green as a result of a relationship in my late teens – my first long term relationship in fact. A lot of the pieces were already there – I was already into paganism, I had the first inklings of an anticapitalist analysis, and had since my teenage years always had a vague idea that we were probably screwed in the long run. But then suddenly I had a like minded partner, a bunch of friends who were more on-board, and I started attending a camp full of people with some very hardcore low impact lifestyles – living in vehicles, or in rural communes, building compost toilets, dancing in circles with shoes off, the whole shebang.

And so suddenly another world wasn’t just possible, but happening around me. I decided this was what I wanted to do. Join a rural community, be self sufficient, live on little or no money. It would be great! A big part of this revelation was that I didn’t have to have a career. I’d never had any idea what I wanted to do for a living, and the idea that I could just ‘be self-sufficient’ was pretty emotionally appealing.

Now don’t get me wrong – some of this stuff has stuck, but really, I was motivated by laziness and having an easy life, and there were a whole bunch of quite silly assumptions tied up in my new-found goals.

There are two really silly parts to this phase and the first is the idea that self-sufficiency is easy. Living like a peasant is actually incredibly hard work, and there are some very good reasons that only a tiny percentage of even hardcore deindustrialists manage it, or even aim for it as a goal. The second is that of being motivated by laziness – if I just put in this effort now, then I’ll have all this free time and I can just sit around. These days, I don’t want to just sit around. I want to get out there, learn, grow and keep busy.

Getting hit by the cops will change the world.

The second phase of silliness came as I first started getting involved in environmental activism. I went to a few climate camp events, I learnt about consensus decision-making, I got assaulted by a police officer. I even ended up chained to a conveyor belt at 6.00am on a cold October morning in an attempt to shut down a coal fired power station for a week. All good stuff, some of which I’m immensely proud of. But it involved taking on some quite odd ideas about the world for a little while. For starters I believed that we could stop global industrial capitalism, or at least slow it enough to save ‘the world.’ I also took on board some pretty silly ideas about the nature of political power, and definitely left with a serious over-estimation of civil disobedience. That’s not to say that civil disobedience isn’t an important tool – of course it is, but it most definitely does not exist in a little bubble separate from all other forms of trying to influence government or achieve social change.

Survival through storage.

Alongside both of these shifts came a return of the creeping suspicion from my teenage years that we were probably screwed – now with a bit more analysis as to why this was the case to support my gut feelings on the matter. The silliness came from thinking that I could avoid the worst effects of these through food storage and consumer purchases. I never did buy the £300 worth of portable solar kit, so that I’d ‘always have electricity’ (though I find myself reconsidering it now so that when I’m away camping for weeks I can get more writing done).

Fast crash/Guerilla Resistance/Anarcho-primitivism.

By now I was 24, studying building conservation at university (at least in part because I mistakenly thought that spending 3 years getting a degree at my local ex polytechnic would be good for my job prospects). In my final year I did a dissertation on the implications of peak oil on the construction industry (which sounds considerably more impressive than the actual finished piece of work might I add), which kicked off another big round of reading. I was feeling quite flush, and spent maybe £200 on books in a week(impulse purchasing is one of my stress responses). All this reading shifted me from “we’re screwed” to “my God, we’re screwed right now!” In some ways, I suspect that becoming a father was implicated in this. My subconscious urge to procreate, I suspect, prevented me from accepting this particular revelation until it would no longer get in the way of passing on my genes, since people who think the world is going to end aren’t particularly inclined towards bringing children into it.

The inevitability of some sort of peak oil flavoured apocalypse set in. My faith in the future in tatters, I chanced upon reading “Endgame” by Derrick Jensen. If you haven’t read it, its a particularly doom-laden book about just how awful industrial civilisation is, and makes the case that we should be bringing it down through sabotage and violent action.

My God did I take some of the ideas from that book on wholesale. Happily not wholesale enough to actually go and set fire to anything, but needless to say, everything went quite strange for a while. (Hi, I’m Sven, and I’m in recovery from Anarcho-Primitivism). A slightly terrifying thing that I learnt is that if you talk to people outside of green circles, just how up for tearing everything down some people are – at least in theory.

Derrick Jensen has some definite faults (these days I have some massive problems with the direction he has taken), but it must be said that he’s a very charismatic writer. I look back at this period, and wonder what might have transpired if I’d instead read somebody with a bit more nuance to their ideas, and I suspect that it wouldn’t have worked. I think I needed that shove, from a writer with a point of view sufficiently extreme and out there.

Happily, I’ve recovered from a lot of this silliness by now. And while I’m sure there are some silly things that I still believe, if I knew what they were, I’d probably have gotten over them already.

I find keeping track of how my ideas have shifted over time incredibly useful as a necessary corrective to thinking that I might be right today, or that my understanding of the world is in any way fixed. While I obviously can’t picture it happening, six months or a year down the line, any of my fundamental assumptions about how the world works might no longer make sense. While I imagine some people might struggle with that, I find it quite reassuring in many ways – it means I’m still learning, my thinking is still adapting to what I know. And most importantly, that I’ve got no right to be thinking myself better than anyone else just because they see things differently – after all, I saw things differently once, and I almost certainly will again.

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Industrial Society and cultures of entitlement

This article is about the culture of entitlement that exists in the industrialised world, and how it acts as a hindrance to making positive changes towards deindustrial living.

Entitlement is a hot button political issue these past years, in part due to the austerity measures that various governments have enacted, and the resultant arguments over which sections of society should bear the brunt of nations as a whole trying to get by with less. As a result, it would benefit us to clear up what I’m trying to get at when I talk about a culture of entitlement.

This isn’t really to do with the various stripes of accusations aimed at the poor (working or otherwise), casting moral judgement on their reliance on state handouts, nor is it to do with the counter-arguments that point out the wealthy rely on a disproportionate amount of everybody else’s had work to maintain their standards of living. Or more accurately, it touches on both of these things, but I’m trying to talk about a society-wide phenomenon – ideally without any of you lovely folks reading this taking personal offence.

So I’m going to try to break this down into different parts.

The starting point for this is the disproportionate consumption of the West. Here in the Western world, we consume about 75% of the world’s resources, despite being only 25% of the global population – or about 3 times what we would be able to consume should resources be allocated equitably. We also consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s labour – the developing world devotes far more hours to producing the goods, and increasingly, services that we need than they get in return. Why is a very complicated question. The official line is that we developed first, though I tend to explain it by saying that we’ve been rigging the global economy in our favour through superior fire-power for the last few hundred years, but going into that in any more detail is beyond the scope of this essay.

The next element of this is to do with cheap energy. One hour’s minimum wage in a developed country can buy the equivalent of several weeks human labour in the form of fossil energy. All industrial activity gains a fossil fuel subsidy in some form or other, including renewable energy sources.

A third element is to do with time. Not only are these factors a cultural norm that we are used to taking for granted, but they have been the case for so long that our patterns of living have been optimised to take advantage of them. Generations of investment in infrastructure have cemented them firmly in place, and by that I’m not just talking about physical infrastructure like electrical grids, transportation networks and mega cities, but human infrastructure in the form of education systems, technical specialism and a globalised economic system.

So to summarise: we all grew up during a time of unparalleled prosperity, built in a large part on the exploitation of non-renewable resources, cheap energy and the cheap labour of other countries.

For various reasons, many people are interested in taking steps away from the unsustainable and exploitative patterns of living that are defined by these trends, and this is where we see this sense of entitlement getting in the way. Whenever we act within the patterns of industrial society, these factors work to magnify out efforts, and since almost everything we do is within these patterns, we don’t see this magnification in action until we start acting against it. As such, our brains are wired to expect a disproportionate return on our effort.

As such, as soon as we try to adapt our habits in order to act in a more resilient manner, we struggle to feel anything other than hard done by. Working to wean ourselves of reliance from the machine feel like far more toil for less reward than we are used to. Our industrially calibrated reward centres fight back:

“All this back-breaking digging we’re doing can’t possibly be worth it to grow a few vegetables?”

“Why on earth am I spending hours tanning this leather when I could just buy a ready-made jacket in a charity shop for the change in my back pocket?”

“Do I really want to cycle up this hill to save maybe a pound’s worth of petrol?”

To compound this, as the early adopters of resilient ways of living we are trying to re-learn all of these good habits without the social and physical infrastructure in place to support them. This is not to undervalue the support that is available – many of us have some friends with similar interests or some good community projects, and public libraries plus the internet mean its never been easier to acquire knowledge for free. But this is nothing compared to the support for the status quo. Getting a job might be becoming increasingly more difficult, but its nothing compared to re-learning all the skills required to live like a medieval peasant, and the rewards for doing so are far greater.

This is by no means an impossible hurdle. In fact, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already gotten over it in at least one or two areas of your life. But it is a significant barrier.

As such, I will try to outline a few tactics that I try to use for pushing through this mental resistance and keeping it at bay:

Know your enemy

I find that simply recognising the patterns of thought at work is a really positive first step to getting past them. Simply writing this article has helped me to articulate some of the mental processes at work here, and understand them better – and hopefully it has helped you to do the same.

Stop comparing your actions to industrial equivalents

Of course the fruits of your labour aren’t going to rival industrial over-production. That’s the nature of trying to get by with less. Whenever you find yourself thinking how easily you could be meeting these needs through industrial channels, instead focus on the waste and pollution you’re producing less of.

Or consider how much harder what you are doing would be without the inevitable industrial subsidy. Do you think riding that bike up the hill is hard work? Well what would it be like without paved roads to ride on, or the advanced metallurgy that gives you your gearing system. Think about how fortunate you are to have access to good quality affordable hand tools and cheap printing, and how much more work you can do because of it. Personally I try to avoid feeling guilty for taking advantage of industrial items to learn post-industrial skills – to me resourcefulness is far more useful than puritanism.

Pick your battles

Maybe spinning wool and knitting jumpers isn’t for you – while it is a skill that I have seen in action, and see the value of, it isn’t one I feel the need to learn.

Instead of trying to do everything for yourself, focus on skills that you get on with. Doing a few things well is better than trying to do everything. Even in a post-industrial future, we’ll still have job specialisation.

Don’t see convenience as a goal

Putting a lot of effort into achieving something challenging is far more rewarding than going for the convenient option, even if it feels like what you want in the short term. Mr Money Mustache has a great piece of advice for thinking about this differently. The article is well worth a read from a finance perspective, but the short explanation is that when you find yourself tempted by something more convenient, remind yourself that convenience is a slippery slope which ends with you sitting on the couch in front of a screen, with an attendant on hand to administer food through a drip and change your bed-pan.

An extreme example for sure. The more positive spin on this is seeing the value in what you are doing. Personally, I am slowly learning to value achievement, and trying to remind myself that free time is only valuable to me if I’m not wasting it.

These three things can really help me to get motivated and stick with a deindustrial project as the initial enthusiasm wears off. If you’ve got other suggestions, I’d be interested to hear them in the comments.

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