Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Great Turning, or The Same Old Song?

It is the curse of prophets that they see the problems and  follies of an age, think they have a solution, but no one listens to them. In addition they are drowned out by a bunch of proposed solutions that come from the same state of consciousness as the one that created the problems in the first place, and then, to add insult to injury, those insane solutions are actually tried right in front of the poor prophet.

I doubt I am a prophet (not fanatical enough, or not full of enough hubris to think that what seems like no-brainer solutions to me would actually work), but I keep having this experience. Yesterday was an example. I went to an event supposed to promote an organization which funds local food businesses (but not startups!). I was expecting alot of farmers but most of the businesses were catering to the yuppie foodist market. The main motif was food distribution (with your favorite high-energy density unsustainable, greenhouse-gas producing fuel), packaging using fancy machines, which are connecting real producers in other countries to consumers in the US.

It is ironic that the main speaker mentioned how he saw the irony of organizations that were supposed to be environmentally friendly, but invested in companies that destroyed the environment.  What are the businesses he funds now doing that is taking us away from a destructive industrial present into a benign de-industrial future? They are mostly promoting a new consumer market, with very little production of goods happening locally. Mostly what is produced locally are services. Some goods are produced locally, but I bet if we looked at the percentage of calories coming from local, organic food, it would be small (because most of our calories come from beans, meat and grains). There is a big focus on ice cream, chocolate and a few vegetables. Moreover, most of the tools and materials used to process, package and distribute those goods come from industrial production, with all its associated nastiness, but high efficiency. For all this critique, these businesses are actually targeting an existing growing market and should make (if they are not already making) a nice monetary return in the near future. But don't pretend like this is part of the Great Turning that Joanna Macy and David Korten envisioned. It is nothing more than business as usual, and not surprising given the homeostatic nature of complex systems, as I've indicated in other posts on this blog and in this video: In other words, people will do what they already know how to do, which in the US is mostly marketing, computer programming, cooking, and growing some veggies.

There is also a market mismatch between the services that are offered and a a large percentage of the community. What is the market of people who would buy those goods/services? The kinds of people who want food gardens instead of lawns, or good food, would do their own landscaping and prepare their own food. There might be a little niche of elites who are too lazy or too old to get their hands dirty and get their sense of worth from their foo-foo high brow consumer choices of the fad du jour.

After sampling all the yummy food which I wouldn't normally buy, I talked to a guy who told me that the reason most people won't be able to listen to my Luddite Manhattan Project description is the same why people won't listen to his talk about free energy and the conspiracy by elites (or space lizards?) to suppress it. I didn't want to tell him that I already looked into free energy and found it to be bunk, explained more in terms of the psychology of people who are looking for scapegoats to deal with the failure of the myth of progress and are unwilling to let go of their attitude of entitlement than any sound physics. I didn't want to tell him that because that would guarantee that he won't be interested in the Luddite Manhattan Project. But it is not a good feeling that my ideas probably sound the same to most people as the paranoiac rants about free energy and space lizards.

We also talked about the failure of local currency and time-bank schemes (he initiated one of each himself). I think the failure of local currency is due to the misconception of money as wealth. Money is mostly a means of exchange. Real wealth comes from actual production of goods and services, not just consumption. We live in a society where most goods are produced somewhere else, subsidized by petroleum and imported here (5% of the word's population consuming 25% of the energy and 33% of the material resources of the planet) and so the importers of most of the real wealth are not interested in local currency because they don't spend most of their time in our town. There are a few producers of valuable services among us, but they rely heavily on imported energy and goods. This is an additional reason for failure of local currencies and a reason for failure of time banks.

Somehow printing local currency is supposed to work like a magical incantation to stimulate a local economy, but this only goes so far if most of the energy, tools and materials are still imported because people don't have the skills/knowledge to produce them locally.

Another source of wealth is land, and productive land is out of reach of most people. To add insult to injury, most people also have to spend a large part of their income on paying rent or a mortgage. Not sure how a significant fraction of people could make a living just by owning a 3D printer or CNC mill, or even renting all of these at a hacker space if land and materials are still owned by someone else.

One possible way to redistribute land and give people relief from the debts of rents and mortgages is simply for those who own it to give or share that land with those who don't. Not with anyone, just with others who could make productive, sustainable use of that land, who are eager to work, and who want to share with others. I have done it myself (gave away a house with land) with good results so far (it took several iterations to get it right). Land ownership is by a significant american middle class, not just a few wealthy upper class folks. Perhaps it is not so in other parts of the world.

Unfortunately, most philanthropy is towards "at-risk", "under-serviced" and such populations with the goal of educating them to be good consumers and workers of the empire (or at best to expose them to nature), not to produce basic goods and services in a sustainable economy. There are historical and biological reasons why most philanthropy focuses on disempowered people (and nowadays usually disempowers them further).

The historical reasons in this mostly Christian country are that Jesus (and probably other jewish rabbis before him) urged to take care of the least among us, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Those were times of brutal repression by the empire du jour (roman instead of american), but at least most people could still meaningfully contribute to the survival and even well-being of their community by applying practical skills. This is no longer true and a better strategy than helping those who are even more disempowered than us, is to learn useful skills (useful to a real economy, not the farce that is the global economy, the kind that probably don't pay yet), kind of like putting the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on your baby in a plane. The best gift you can give a homeless, unemployed person is meaningful work and meaningful usually means being able to help your family and community in concrete ways.

The biological reasons of focusing philanthropy on the homeless, orphaned, "at-risk youth", etc are our innate need to nurture, which is a need that is not met very well in other ways in this culture. This is the same reason people get pets. There has been a massive breakdown of the family, women have become less nurturing, children more aimless and leaving home earlier, and men less able to work at jobs that are meaningful.

Another possible reason for philanthropy being primarily directed towards people in dependent roles and keeping them in those roles is that we can project our own helplessness to provide for our community and dependence on an empire to provide for us, unto other people. That way, as Jung understood, we don't have to look at our own shadow.

Of course investment is not philanthropy and aims to get a return, even if it is an indirect return from the government for supposedly helping "at-risk youth". Instead of aiming for a monetary return, why not invest in reskilling a community so that people can really take care of their community, instead of depending on the handouts from Empire, won through depriving other people and destroying our earth?  What a great ROI that would be! We might need to give up our sense of entitlement to most of the world's resources for that. Or our entitlement to using those resources to prop up an unsustainable health care system, or using those resources to not have to contribute when we are "retired". We might have to settle for a local doctor taking care of us with 19th centrury technology (adding anti-biotic production capability) when we are injured or sick, and the young ramping up their contributions to help the elderly while the elderly still contribute directly to the community in ways that they can. After the talk, an elderly man came to ask the speaker about his concern that investing in ethical companies is not going to give him a high enough ROI for a viable retirement. This might be true (the speaker denied it), but with this kind of attitude, there is not even a Small Turning.

In conclusion, a winning combination is reskilling towards pre-industrial technology, forming a network of producers (in addition to the already existing service providers and consumers), and sharing land.

Social Implications of 3D Printers and Open Source Manufacturing

Factor E Farm, Open Source Ecology, The Maker and Open Manufacturing Movements are moving away from the fringe and coming into mainstream awareness. There are some values that I am sympathetic to, common to all these organizations. They value the resiliency that comes from localizing basic goods and services, the distributist empowerment of individuals and small communities, and the transparency of open sourcing that is encouraged by localism (but possible even without it with open source technology).

But what I want to focus on in this post are values that trouble me. I hesitate to do this because I don't want to harm the open source movement, and hope that this opens up a constructive conversation rather than initiating a cyber war.

First, all these movements are what JMG would call "captive to the religion of Progress", or more precisely to the technological branch of that religion. They have a machine fetish typical of ROP, and I'll refer to them as "the machine fetishists". There are several questions that need to be asked relative to using a high tech machine to do the job that a human plus a tool could do:
1. Can the machine be built, run and maintained on purely local (solar, wind) energy?
2. Can the machine be built, run and maintained on purely local materials?
3.  Would allowing machines to accomplish a task that could be accomplished by humans with simpler tools produce more employment? More creativity? More satisfaction?

I think that the machine fetishists will answer all these questions in the negative if they are honest.

1. The energy from sunlight and wind is too diffuse to get a net gain of energy, once the costs of producing and maintaining solar panels (or wind turbines), batteries (and/or grids) and associated electronics are taken into account. It has been possible so far because petroleum is so energy dense, but it took a long time to store that much sunlight in such a small volume, and petroleum not only is becoming too expensive due to peaking production, but is non-local in most parts and has all the problems associated with importing global materials.
2. Most of these machines are using Computer Numerical Control (CNC) which demands an incredibly complex, capital, materials and energy intensive technology.  I don't see a way to localize the materials necessary to make computers.
3.  If we get beyond the beliefs that newer is always better, that manual labor is degrading and does not involve intelligence, that efficiency is everything (all standard beliefs in the Credo of Progress, see: , then we can begin to see the advantages of agrarian and craft work over machine work. A machine operator has much less creativity than a crafsman in his work. This is more debatable with an engineer or designer, but engineers and designers are not needed in even a minor way in the scenario of the GVCS once the 50 machines are built. Even if there was room for a few engineers, it is a far cry from the full employment available with just farmers and craftspeople using human scale tools.

Perhaps the machine fetishists will say that there will be full employment, but not with making basic needs--that would be left to the machines. They might say that there would be more artists, entertainers and scientists.  I doubt this could happen because of questions 1 and 2, but even if it could, I don't think it is a desireable state of affairs. I think doing the work that connects us with nature and our basic needs, also connects us with our fellow humans and builds character and keeps us humble. Intentional communities where people do not share an economy of basic goods and services, do not become centers of enlightened scholarship and art with strong community bonds. They either become places of boredom and bickering (standard ICs), or cut-throat competition for status and grants (standard academia).

The other problem that is not considered by the machine fetishists is the fact that acquiring land with enough resources to produce one's basic needs is still too prohibitively expensive for most people and this won't be solved by machines.

In effect, what the open source movement is saying is that the only problem with the industrial mode of production is that it concentrates the means of production in the hands of a few wealthy individuals and the way to fix that is to distribute the means of production to everyone. But as I show above, this ignores a bunch of other important problems. The fate of the open source movement is probably the same as that of all other society bettering movements that did not get to root memes: it will be coopted by the present socio-economic system with 3D printers cranking out extravagant consumerist doo-dads, land and resources being concentrated in the hands of a few, community and family no better than they are now.

It would be presumptuous of me to outright condemn this movement, but I think my concerns are addressed better in a return to agrarianism and craftsmanship, perhaps with a few modern technological additions.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Credo of the Religion of Progress

This post is an attempt to summarize some ideas discussed in JMG's blog. He was probably not the first one to say these things. Wendell Berry and others may have said them before him.

The ROP is the most popular civil religion of our times. It is non theistic, although Progress has some characteristics usually attributable to gods. Both conservatives and liberals embrace this religion, conservatives focusing on the economic aspects and liberals on the technological and moral aspects. Liberals refer to those who are not believers as "regressive" or "backward", and to themselves as "progressive".

Here are the tenets of the ROP. These seem to be common to most practitioners, but there might be variant credos. It is good to become aware of unstated beliefs and it is even better to come up with alternatives. But if the alternatives are just opposites of the original tenets, it becomes an "anti-religion", which is still within the framework of the old religion. Examples are Satanism-Christianity, Communism-Objectivism, and ROP-Primitivism or Apocalypticism. I'll work on an alternative credo, which is not within the framework of the ROP soon.
1. Science keeps improving our knowledge of the world and all that came before science (or offered as an alternative way of knowledge) is inferior (superstitious, ignorant, etc). 
2. Industrial technology is an improvement over other technologies that preceded it because it is more efficient, and hence saves labor and increases comfort, health and creativity (other things don't really matter, and the creativity of the small scale farmer and artisan is quaint, but not of much significance). Manual labor is degrading and requires almost no intelligence. Energy and material availability needed to support industrial technology keep increasing. Finiteness of energy or material resources will be transcended because "they'll think of something", or they'll be a "singularity" (akin to the Christian Rapture).

3. Centralization is a good thing. To make it work we need hierarchies. 

Corolaries from 1, 2 and 3:
A The priests of ROP are scientists, engineers and doctors, aka experts. Experts know more than average people in their field of expertise, and should always be followed. If it doesn't ring true, it's because you aren't smart enough, not because the expert is wrong, or their model is wrong. Experts are required for every daily activity, even if you think you know how to do it. Eg, you should consult experts for childbirth, child-rearing advice, breastfeeding advice (unless you're really progressive and use formula), relationship advice, etc. (Please ignore the fact that humankind has been birthing, feeding, raising children for centuries without said experts)

B. Every "problem" has a technology solution. Eg, small boys fidgeting in school has nothing to do with being young and energetic, or lack of sufficient time at recess, or any problems in the home life. It can and should be easily solved with an attention-deficit pill.

C. The full force of gov't can and should be used to enforce progress to improve the world, and guided by experts, despite the protests of any group or individual.

4. Progress is not only good and inevitable but logical and rational.
D. The experts who are guiding progress are therefore logical and rational (like Spock), and devoid of any personal motivations like greed, envy, lust, cover-your-derierre defensiveness, etc. 
E. Anyone who opposes progress is irrational and emotional and cannot be trusted to make informed decisions. Any criticism of experts can be safely ignored.
5. We can't go back to either a religious worldview or a pre-industrial one because they are "regressive" (less leisure time, more disease, shorter lifespan, harder labor, and other demonizations), and there is nothing that will come after science and industrial technology unless it is barbarism.
6. Economic wealth keeps increasing and will continue to do so.
Corollary to 6:
F: The highest and best use of real property is that use which will generate the most profit.
7. We become morally better (freer, more loving, more altruistic) people as time progresses. Society keeps improving on the moral front. There is an inevitability about this just like in the case of technologies. This is a favorite of new agey types, who frame it in therms of evolution, whereas biological evolution has nothing to do with progress.

8. The opponents of progress will inevitably be defeated, as they have been in the past by the heroes of progress.
9. Things must always be improved. If things are not getting better (staying the same or "slipping back") then this is a failure and a problem. We need a permanent avant garde.

The ROP has apologists to assure its believers that everything is alright. They will tell you that lifespan has increased, that education, leisure time, medicine, economic welfare have all progressed. They ignore the relatively high lifespan of peasants who were not engaged in warfare or the effect of medieval city slums on sanitation and lifespan, or the effect of war on, say, Iraqui lifespan. They ignore the fact that most moderns only know a bit about their specialty and a few abstract things but not about how to live a sane, sustainable life. They ignore the fact that most moderns no longer have much leisure time, and those who do do not know what to do with it, feeling stress, alienation and meaninglessness, whereas most medieval peasants and hunter gatherers had plenty of leisure time. They ignore the fact that new diseases have cropped up as a direct result of the kind of life that industrial production/consumption promotes, and that a stupendous amount of non-renewable resources that will not be available to our descendants are used to prolong miserable lives in old age. They ignore the fact that economic wealth is mostly concentrated in the west, that it is mostly a result of a finite bubble of petroleum that has peaked, and that family, community, connection to nature and ability of small groups to produce their needs provides another kind of wealth that might be more valuable. They ignore these things even when presented with concrete evidence to the contrary, as in a living, existing village where people are much happier in a pre-industrial setting such as the Possibility Alliance. This is one reaction to cognitive dissonance, to just ignore, to not even see something that doesn't fit one's religious narrative.

I used to believe in the ROP. Most people still believe in it though they are not even aware of it as a religion (which besides having faith-based beliefs that motivate people, also has rituals, and an anti-religion where the good is inverted to be bad, and the bad is inverted to be good). I suppose I still believe in a modified form of #7: I'd like to think that individual humans can become more loving and increase in other virtues, and that during certain times there could be more humans who are virtuous than at other times. But I don't think that virtue has to increase, and that at certain times it might actually decrease. I don't believe in the perverted view of evolutionary theory that sees evolution as leading to more morally evolved humans.

The problem with the ROP is not that it isn't true. It is as true as any other religion, but it isn't adaptive at this point in history. It increased human misery. Of course there are scientific and technological developments and some of them help some people (e.g. anti-biotics). But every culture does some things better and some things worse. To believe that our western culture is at the pinnacle of evolution and that the goal of life is to control nature is not only hubris, but it prevents us from seeing better ways of living in this world.

Attempt at formulating an alternative (Luddite, or maybe just Iuval's) Credo:
1. The universe is not always deterministic. Free will exists.
2. Matter exists concomitant with Spirit. Spirit has qualities like information, love, creativity, spontaneity and fundamental unpredictability.
3. The equations of Physics and abstract math are spiritual, non-material.
4. Humans can live well on the earth with much less material goods, and much more spiritual ones: love, freedom, deep relationships, scholarship, music, art, play, dance, engineering of simple tools.
5. The material world is good to engage with when it doesn't take over our minds and hearts, but when it places us in relationship with nature and each other.
6. Sometimes mistakes can be made in the collective choices of a society, or the powerful elites of that society which then become the choices of most others in that society. For example the choice to adopt industrialization which placed efficiency and comfort above all else. Newer is not always better. Efficiency is not everything.
7. Local economics is better for the planet and most people's souls than global economics. The particular form (socialist, free market, gift or other) would naturally vary from place to place, from soul to soul.