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.


  1. Hi Iuval, thanks for posting a link to your blog on my new blog. Interesting to hear your thoughts on this because I hope you're right. Most of my non-household time is spent running a community project in the area where I live that aims at developing horticultural skills, on a formerly-derelict site leased from the city council. At the moment we produce vegetables for your volunteers and a few to sell, and we're hoping production will increase. I'm interested in the emerging network of producers as well.

  2. Thanks Alice. Yes, this seems to be something that hasn't made it much into the consciousness of the environmental movement, that we need to work on production, not just consumption, and we need to do it in our back yards, the opposite of NIMBY. Glad you are doing some of that with the garden, and perhaps starting with the antibiotics project. I am trying to get started weaving screens for shade and bugs, and I would like to do much more, but time is limited.

  3. Luval, (my first post to a blog ever) I came via the archdruidareport blog. I too am seeking to find and create local community, though I am not ambitious enough or socially connected enough to think of intending anything separate from my local citizenry. I guess i'm hoping to stumble into the evolution of local association with people of a similar bent.

    Regarding land. I garden about one-eight of an acre on land I neither own or rent (except for providing a small amount of produce to the landlady). I'm very lucky that in the lower Snoqualmie valley of Washington state there are a few people willing to offer their land for productive use - and that there is a surprising amount of acreage that is suitable (with strenuous efforts) to growing vegetables. It seems that seeing the productive and caring use of the land is a reward to this owner. A good portion of the produce of these efforts goes to a local community food pantry, and that portion s minuscule compared to the needs in the community.

    I wish you powerful learning from your search and in your reflections. I'll be checking back from time to time.

  4. Thanks for the encouragement, David. One of these days I will do a post on rent and the unethical nature of most of it. It is nice that some people are willing to let people work their land without charging rent. I have found only one such person, also through the archdruid report and may go there soon. Note that my request for land sharing on the Green Wizards Forum has remained unanswered since I posted it about a month ago...

    However, vegetables comprise a small part of out caloric intake. They do take little land if farmed intensively, but our staples: grains, beans and animal products take more land. Also, it takes land to produce other things that are necessary for life (including tools for farming and food processing), and as long as some people own the land while other people actually produce stuff and pay rent to the first group (or mortgage), we have a problem.

  5. "kind of like putting the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on your baby in a plane"

    ...or like removing a plank from your eye before touching your neighbor's eye.

    Early Christianity didn't focus exclusively on the poor: the imprisoned, and the overly-involved-with-empire (tax collectors), were also offered help.

    I can sympathize with your decision to distance yourself from mainstream Capitalist Christianity, but I couldn't help but notice that your ideas about breaking away from a corrupt mainstream have some common features with earlier, successful work toward a similar goal.

    I also want to say that free energy and intensive innovation toward sustainability don't need high-powered agents to suppress them: most people live in a world where such things don't work, and their intuition is that such things will continue to not work.

    I happen to agree with you that free energy technologies aren't worth investing in, and with your stated reasoning for why such ideas still hold appeal. As regards start-up might be interested in the term "ramen profitable," which has begun circulating among technology start-ups.

    1. Dear Joel,

      By "earlier work towards a similar goal", what are you referring to?