Sunday, February 5, 2012

A proposal for funding a blueprint of a village-based technology ecosystem

The following is a proposal I submitted to a few authors and foundations. So far no takers, despite my belief that it is a "no-brainer" thing to do. My working hypothesis as to why this proposal is not getting funded is that it falls outside of two of the main conflicting worldviews today. One is the Religion of Progress(firstsecond, thirdfourthfifthsixthseventheighthninth, tentheleventhtwelfththirteenthfourteenthfifteenthsixteenthseventeenth) which appreciates experts, but thinks industrialism is just fine and that all our social and ecological problems will be solved by more of the same. It is inconceivable in that worldview to challenge industrialism. To those in that camp I say that the outcome of the project could be that industrialism is the only technological ecosystem that works under present population and environmental depletion conditions, though I doubt it. The second is the emerging world view that we are deeply entwined with the natural world and each other, but with a suspicion of all experts and top down, non-evolutionary approaches to our current problems. This worldview also holds, thanks unwittingly to Gandhi, that large systemic change is only possible at the individual level, one individual at a time. This is what Neal Stephenson called the Seed approach, to distinguish it from the Feed approach that mainstream politics and economics is about. However, who says that seed has to be an individual? Why not a small community of elite people who get something working? It is true that a cell will not be able to be a seed, but there are many more possible levels between individuals and Leviathans (such as the global Economy) at which seeds could be sown.  To those in that camp I say that the experts needed for this project are mostly craftspeople, not PhDs of industrial/scientific disciplines and coordinating such people is possible and much easier than coordinating whole governments, corporations or other Leviathans, in analogy with the Manhattan Project. The project does have an evolutionary component, but it tries to avoid the situation of only acting seriously when we run out of fossil fuels, by which point more benign evolutionary paths which are now still open may become closed.

I think the ability to produce one's basic needs has been the missing link in most intentional communities. There are other problems (such as communication, and inner demons from the culture) but solutions are nowadays available. Having to get basic needs from the culture that one wants to leave is the downfall of any community that solves the other problems and this is an attempt to address that.

When Jesus was alive and shortly thereafter, industrialism wasn't around and Empire could be resisted by communities that provided for themselves, though taxes were preposterous. The Empire slowly collapsed, but the meme of Empire (domination, information suppression and violence) somehow infected the Church. Despite that there arose a competency in the ability to provide for one's village (and even the non-productive members thereof, namely the lords and some of the clergy, who got much more than anyone else, as well as young children and the very old)

When Gandhi was alive, at least in India there was still the possibility of resisting Empire with local craft and agricultural production despite the onlaught of industrialism. This kind of local tecchnology and economy was what Gandhi and his compatriot J.C. Kumarappa were advocating. Unfortunately Gandhi got killed and Nehru went the way of industrialization. Also unfortunately, Gandhi is remembered only for his nonviolence, not his Luddism (which is related, because industry is a violent system of making stuff and employing people)

When MLK was alive, the Religion of Progress was going strong and he thought that it could provide decent jobs and dignity for all (with no environmental cost). Towards the end of his life he started seeing that this is not so, and had he not been assassinated I think he would have become a Luddite too, like Jesus and Gandhi.

Creating Local Economies for Basic Goods
Project Summary
This project will focus on providing the technological tools to enable a small (in terms of land and number of people) LOCAL, democratic, agrarian and craft-based economy as an alternative to the global, factory-based economy.  The emphasis is on the local constraint and on planning. Local is defined primarily with regard to basic needs and services, which are defined as those associated with food, water, shelter, clothes, and health care. The project will test the hypothesis that individual freedom, creativity, healthy human interdependence, initiative, intellectual discourse and ecological sustainability can better exist within the context of a basic needs local economy than the current global economy. After an R&D thinktank stage, a village of about 200 people will be built, tools and land bought, but after two more years all basic goods will be produced and maintained in the village. Alternatively, an existing third world village will be given tools and training to produce all their basic needs locally in a way that encourages the above desirable qualities, Expenses not related to basic needs will be paid for by profitable businesses developed in the village.
The industrial revolution has enabled a large growth in population and was partially motivated by ideas of a better standard of living for more people, but it has led to several problems.  These problems manifest as lack of time to pursue creative endeavors (with a few exceptions), lack of ability to provide for one’s basic needs without having to sell one’s time in a non-democratic work environment, a widespread automaton-like conformity and lack of critical thinking abilities,  lack of ability to have deep relationships with people on a village, tribal, family or community level, an infiltration of market values into all human relationships, an interest in power more than in truth, a host of environmental problems, and manipulation of the masses by the most economically powerful.  The latter two have existed prior to the industrial revolution, but have been enabled to unprecedented levels by the industrial revolution. Though some of these problems are political, we claim that they can be partially solved by localizing production of basic goods.
There have been many critiques of factory-based industrial global economies, but few pragmatic proposals for alternatives (or proposals for piecemeal engineering, in Karl Popper's words).  Before the industrial revolution in Europe, most people participated in a local craft and agrarian-based economy, at least for basic needs. There were serious problems with feudal governance, healthcare, and with the relative lack of individuation of medieval villagers. While not romanticizing such periods as the Middle-Ages, it may be that a modern adaptation and improvement of their craft-based production system could solve some of the problems that have been generated by the global economy.  Local, craft-based economies have been proposed by Gandhi, Michael Schuman, Lanza del Vasto, Peter Maurin, Erich Fromm,  E.F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry and many distributists. These proposals have almost never made it to the implementation stage, partially because of a technology and information gap. Given all that the human race has learned in science and technology since the Middle Ages and even since the time of Gandhi, it may be possible to improve on the technology of the Middle Ages while avoiding some of the social, psychological and environmental problems due to our global technology and economy. This is expected to require an initial investment of capital before a local economy can compete and offer an alternative to the global market economy.
Need for local economies
It is conjectured that a local, craft-based basic-needs economy may have the following advantages over the current, global economy:
  • Transparency, leading to humaneness and connection: It is harder to hide what one is doing when the activity is in one's town rather than in a far-away land.  There is growing evidence that much of the wealth of western countries is at the expense of the well-being and resources of third world countries. Rationalizations for the mistreatment of those people have been made, but they will be harder to make when one is confronted with exploitation in the concrete rather than in the abstract.  It is expected that people will want to better treat their friends who share work and vision with them, than anonymous, abstract humans who are seen only as a labor pool, and that better treatment of one's land or back yard is a result of production on one's land or back yard rather than someone else's far away. So we reverse Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY), to Produce In My Back Yard (PIMBY) (but do it responsibly and beautifully).
  • Ecological Responsibility: as Wendell Berry argues, the ecological crisis is due to people not being in touch with and powerless to change the consequences of their economic actions. NIMBY has inadvertently led to abstraction, irresponsibility and phenomenological dissociation. Having production and consumption happen in one's own backyard is the antidote.

  • A healthier democracy: It is hard to do good experiments in a system that is too large and complex. A healthy democracy needs experiment, not just bickering about theory. But if people are nationally and globally economically dependent, it is hard to disentangle the factors contributing to any phenomenon. Another way to say this is a shorter, more direct    feedback loop between theory and practice, between action and effect. State and regional rights only makes sense when the states or regions are mostly independent of each other. But this cannot happen in the current global, industrial economy. A craft and agrarian based economy is local and provides the technological and economic foundation for a healthy democracy.
  • A solution to the agency problem: A local, basic needs economy avoids middle-men who are usually the agents referred to in the agency problem. Resources are directly produced and consumed by the participants of the local economy, with no need for an agent to allocate them, automatically avoiding the agency problem inherent both in global market capitalism and state socialism.  It is proposed that the basic needs local economy will have a planned aspect (thus small scale socialism), and still allow participants to engage in the global economy for non-basic needs. The rise of self-interest conflicting with public good in large scale bureaucratic institutions possibly originates from the tendency of humans to not care about each other as much in the abstract as in the concrete and be able to hide immoral behavior behind large institutions.
  • Psychological well-being: Though a few people today are engaged in a livelihood that requires creativity and/or craftsmanship, the majority of people earn a 'living' as cogs in a machine, having work that is not conducive to psychological well-being. Their production is usually not beneficial to their community in obvious ways and their work is not something they can usually share with their families because its purpose is too abstract. Having an abstract job is better than being unemployed, but meaningful employment that produces basic needs and that can be shared with one's family/community even better. Ideally, people could participate in basic needs production and have a more abstract specialty if they desire. In contrast, a local economy can contribute to and support collectivist needs that are present in most humans and avoid the temptation to satisfy those needs with fascism, state communism/socialism or primitivism (see:

There is also a need to nurture and take care of people that can be satisfied better by producing directly for one's family and community than going through the intermediate of money. It is a balance to self-interest that stabilizes the larger institutions (family, community) necessary for humans to flourish.
  •  Freedom: If one is dependent only on one's skill, work ethic and one's neighbors for a livelihood, one is harder to control than if one is dependent on an impersonal market which is unevenly controlled by large corporations and governments. If one owns the means of production and has a significant voice in production decisions, one is less easily enslaved.
  • Minimizing Uncertainty/resiliency: Being a much simpler system than the global economy, a local economy is easier to understand and easier to influence. It is less prone to disruptions from efficient but fragile supply networks and global financial speculation.
Other similar efforts and charting new terrain with this project
There are many current small efforts to produce various components of local economies, mostly centered around local food, though these tend to be underfunded and disconnected from each other. The main shortcomings with the local food movement are that production is limited to a small percentage of the population who owns relatively large chunks of land, or a few inner city folks who do not have access to enough land to  grow grains and beans or graze livestock. . Many inner city people are not very attracted to community gardens, which provide mainly vegetables. They are able to get cheap, salty  processed food, consisting mainly of meat, grains, beans, dairy and fat, which are usually not possible to produce in community gardens. Community gardening is typically a hobby, and at best can only catalyze public interest. The farmers who are supplying local food are operating as part of the global economy and in order to survive in that economy have to charge more than what most people are willing to pay. In order to create a local economy that offers full democratic and meaningful employment, more land must be made available in order to practice extensive ecology-based agriculture, food processing has to be included in the economy, as well as maintenance and manufacturing of tools and equipment. Other aspects of a basic needs economy besides food have to be included. There are already some efforts at local manufacturing at Factor E Farm and Aprovecho as well as many individual inventors, but as with local food, they are underfunded and not well connected to each other. Rather than abolishing disempowering handouts and cheap processed food, it may be useful to create an equivalent "Manhattan Project” (not for building a nuclear bomb, but for building local economies in a serious, concerted way), bringing many current efforts together, funding them well and demonstrating a vibrant, ethical and environmentally responsible economy and community, leading by example.
Details and Timeline
During all stages, decision-making will be hierarchical, but with feedback from all, and weekly meetings for strategy, brainstorming and coordination of different departments. Each department will be assigned a manager, and each department will have daily or weekly (depending on need) meetings every morning to discuss what work is to be done that day and report on challenges from the previous day and anticipated challenges in the next few days.
In the initial stage (estimated to take one year), the goal is to research and plan a self-sustaining production and consumption system that does not need any more inputs from the global economy besides the initial ones described below. Engineers, craftspeople and tradesmen, entrepreneurs, farmers, game programmers, historians of technology and artists (about 10-20 people) will be hired as consultants. A team headed by Iuval Clejan and Chris Theal (see page 9, “Project Management and Location”) will devise a plan for food, housing and other basic needs from local energy and materials, starting (but not ending) with tools, land, seeds and food that is bought from the global economy.  

This step could be done with a collaborative project management software, and it could be web-based (a game?), so that some expert contributors do not have to be physically present. The software would impose the locality constraint as well as "global" (meaning for every person in the local village) goals, such as food, shelter, etc. It would keep track of needs and outputs for each producer in the village and display these in a graphical form, and make sure that each arrow eventually pointed, through a network of other arrows to one of the "global" goals. 
Examples of typical problems to be solved include:
-planning of a local agriculture that provides optimal nutrition and variety in a sustainable manner.
-how to employ both draft animals and  simple machines
-how to efficiently make and maintain the tools and machines
-how to provide irrigation.
-how to preserve and store food,  how to make the best stoves for cooking and heat.
-how to cut wood with hand-saws, and how to make them.
-how to make natural herbal medicine, and whether it is practical to purify antibiotics and other medicines.
-how to find talented people and get them to cooperate in a democratic, hierarchical, not-for-profit corporate environment.
- Evaluating the tradeoffs between hand tools and different machines.
Existing crop optimization software will be used to maximize nutrition and soil fertility, and to minimize water and labor.

Unlike the approach of Factor E Farm, this project will initially eschew electronics (except in calculating and simulating during the planning stage), high energy consumption and materials requiring much infrastructure and will only build tools that directly contribute to production of basic needs. It will start with pre-industrial technology and attempt to improve on it.  It will start with food, shelter, medicine, clothes, and water, and branch out to technologies, tools and materials to support these. This is in line with Popper's idea of piecemeal engineering, except in this case what one starts with is not the current technology, but a pre-industrial technology which was already largely local. One then makes incremental changes to reduce labor, and distribute ownership of tools and land, based on criteria mentioned below. This approach is different than state socialist planned economies because it is local and hence not subject to the abuses of bureaucracy (abstraction, agency problem and one-size-fits-all). It is also different than current global free market capitalism for the reasons outlined above.
Though the initial stage is largely a theoretical, planning stage, there will be some experimentation with both hardware and software.
Next will be an implementation stage (estimated to take two years) for production of basic needs, recruitment of about 200 people, buying land and tools, and maintenance of tools. A portion of the initial consultants along with additional people will be recruited, trained and put to work in production of all basic needs (described above) for the community of participants. Though initially paid a conventional stipend, these people eventually will be paid by what they produce and enjoy (basic needs), not with money. Production goals will be established from the previous stage, based on a rational evaluation of nutritional, housing and other basic needs, with the goals of minimizing time per person spent on production (an initial goal for  yearly average labor per person is 20 hours per week), full employment, democratic participation and encouragement of individual creativity and initiative. The basic needs economy will thus be distributist with some planning on a small village scale.

The next stage (2 years) will involve continued meeting of production goals set during the first stage, but also implementation of  maintenance of existing tools and housing,  as well as building new tools and housing from locally available materials. Some technologies may need to be abandoned, some rediscovered and some invented.  During this stage it is expected that no support will be needed from external sources, but that income will be generated from businesses and that income could be used for personal (non-basic) needs and for funding replica projects.
The last stage will be the propagation of the technologies used for the previous stage (ongoing) to those who might want to participate in such an endeavor.
Project Management and location
The project will be based at the Open Space Community in Atlanta GA (a non profit corporation, EIN number 271518327), and the Possibility Alliance in La Plata Missouri.
Alternatively, after the R&D stage, it can be based in a third world village.
It has so far been funded by private donations.
There will be three project leaders, members of the board of trustees:
Iuval Clejan, the Chief Science and Engineering officer, has been a physicist, an engineer, a molecular biologist, a farmer and an inventor. His experience has trained him to easily navigate between the big picture and details of implementation. He was born in Israel, which gave him a taste for the pros and cons of collectivism.  He travelled a great deal in the US, which gave him a taste for the potential of freedom and individuals. He has started a household that gets electricity from solar panels, water from the rain (hot water from sunshine and wood stove), heat and cooking from wood stoves. He is trying to make a career by combining his love of science and technology with his love of people and nature.
Chris Theal, the energy, water, and ecological advisor, has been the facilities manager for Southface Energy Institute over 10 years. He has experience with many alternative technologies and the compromises that sometimes have to be made between vision and current realities.

Ethan Hughes, the director of human resources, has had much experience managing people in democratic work environments. He lives at the Possibility Alliance in La Plata, MO.

Metrics and Impact
This project does not seek to eliminate global trade and communication. Its scope is limited to production of basic needs on a local scale, in order to further individual freedom and vibrant communities. Metrics for evaluating success of the above proposal  will be developed . The easiest kinds of metrics to  quantify are calories produced and consumed from the land, how many other basic needs are provided by the land, how much food still needs to be bought, how many hours are contributed for the satisfaction of basic needs.  
If the project is successful, it can be advertized by word of mouth and over the internet (minimal funds), so that besides an impact on US middle class society, there can also be impacts on "developing" nations which see an example of something sustainable they can replicate from the first world.  Besides citizens of developing nations , an example of a vibrant life can impact disenfranchised people in the US, who can be incorporated into village economic, social and spiritual life, rather than being disempowered by handouts, or expected to join an economy that is partially creating the conditions that they find themselves in.
Possible pitfalls and solutions:
Pitfall: The project takes over people's lives and becomes a cult or company town
Solution: There is a 40 hour workweek (max) so people have time for other aspects of their lives. People have individual or familial living quarters when they are not working on the project.
Pitfall: The project employs people who can't work well together.
Solution:  Careful applicant screening and reference checking of participants, and a probationary period.
Pitfall: Participants tempted to buy basic goods from the global economy (e.g. clothes) because they are cheaper than basic goods manufactured by the village.
Solution: A prerequisite for working on the project will be that all basic goods will be produced and consumed (except for surplus, which may be exported) on the premises. This is a social or even religious contract (which is why the community could be thought of as a monastery or a "concent"  (Neal Stephenson) which will be mostly self-regulated, but the director of human resources (or head priest/mother superior) could fire anyone who breaks the contract. The same mechanisms of government regulation and individual self-regulation operate when people in the global economy refuse to support slavery, even though products manufactured by slaves may be cheaper than those manufactured by wage earners. Market values have to be subordinated to ethical/moral values, not the other way around.
Pitfall: Participants do not have enough financial incentive, especially after the initial stages, when they stopped getting paid.
Solution:  If the project is successful, the incentive for continuing to produce and consume basic goods locally is more time to pursue creative activities, deeper human relations, more individual empowerment and more connection to nature. If people want to make money in the global economy they will be free to do so as far as luxury goods (or surplus of locally manufactured basic goods), and may be subject to the financial incentives of the global economy.
Pitfall: Some people perform in a substandard manner.
Solution: Just like in any company, there are performance evaluations and opportunities to change direction. In the initial stages, people can be fired, but later substandard performance will be corrected by economic means, that is by participants not bartering with or buying from the substandard performers, just like in any free market.
Pitfall: Interpersonal conflict.
Solution:  Conflict is unavoidable, but there are ways of dealing with it gracefully and these will be studied and implemented (e.g. Non Violent Communication). Also friendly competition can stimulate creativity.
Pitfall: The initial group may be exclusive and isolationist.
Solution: An attitude of service, philanthropy and social justice will be cultivated. Some initial isolationism and exclusivity is necessary to start the project, but will be detrimental if continued after the first few years. For more about why isolationism is not a bad thing for the initial stages, see the hyperlink on page 4.
Pitfall: Economists will balk at local economies because they think that they do not take into account comparative advantage, even for basic needs like food.  
Pitfall: Strictly Local Production of the basic goods of food, water, shelter, health care and clothes will not be possible.
Solution: Some technologies are better than others when the strictly local constraint is imposed. If a technology leads to non-local production, it will be abandoned in favor of one which can be kept local.
Pitfall: The project sounds like socialism.
Solution: The project does involve a planned aspect. But this planning is for a technology ecosystem, not for an economy. The economy that evolves from this technological opportunity is unknown. It may involve market economy, gift economy, coops, etc. The other reason this is not a socialist project is because the planning (and implementation) is on a village scale, not on a notion-state or more global scale. Also, thought the initial planning is partially hierarchical, the governance of the village is not determined at this stage. I hope it can be run by consensus.
This is an opportunity for x to fund an innovative quest for solutions to some entrenched ills of the industrialized global economy and to preserve that which is best in our civilization in the face of dwindling fossil fuel supplies.  With the risks of widespread social disruption from a financial or economic collapse, it is essential to develop diverse, local safety nets, which will protect and empower resilient communities of free individuals.  Luxury lifestyles notwithstanding, the basic needs of a small group can be met with local, appropriate, environmentally benign technology.  When this foundation of Local Economies for Basic Needs is laid, a society is more likely to stay open than slide into fascism.