Tuesday, 24 February 2009

I just want a humble life

Hiroko Tabuchi reports in his New York Times article When Consumers Cut Back that the stubborn people of Japan are refusing to consume at the rate their government wants them to:

As recession-wary Americans adapt to a new frugality, Japan offers a peek at how thrift can take lasting hold of a consumer society...

The economic malaise that plagued Japan from the 1990s until the early 2000s brought stunted wages and depressed stock prices, turning free-spending consumers into misers...

Today, years after the recovery, even well-off Japanese households use old bath water to do laundry, a popular way to save on utility bills. Sales of whiskey, the favorite drink among moneyed Tokyoites in the booming ’80s, have fallen to a fifth of their peak. And the nation is losing interest in cars; sales have fallen by half since 1990.
workers age 24 or younger... who came of age during a tough job market, tend to shun conspicuous consumption.

They tend to be uninterested in cars; a survey last year by the business daily Nikkei found that only 25 percent of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48 percent in 2000, contributing to the slump in sales.

Young Japanese women even seem to be losing their once- insatiable thirst for foreign fashion. Louis Vuitton, for example, reported a 10 percent drop in its sales in Japan in 2008.

“I’m not interested in big spending,” says Risa Masaki, 20, a college student in Tokyo and a neighbor of the Takigasakis. “I just want a humble life.”

It seems the Japanese people are off-message - they are forgetting that "greed is good" and have reverted to the old discredited doctrine of "living within one's means" and "saving for a rainy day".

The article claims that this attitude is "disasterous" and makes the people a "dead weight on Japan’s economy" - it goes on to woffle about the "fear" of deflation, that "scary" economic scenario where saved money becomes more valuable over time, where everyone shuns getting into debt, and where our spiraling use of the scarce resources of the planet decreases and thus starts to come under control ...

VERY scary.. I don't think... what really IS scary is the prevalent view of such mainstream journalists, government economists, politicians, and other retards, that the only way forward for the human race is to consume ever increasing resources in an exponential fashion - the very scenario that is guaranteed to destroy our "civilisation" in very short order.

My parents grew up in the UK during the second world war and its aftermath when there were extensive shortages and rationing of food and clothes and other consumables, and an economic meltdown from which we were rescued only by huge loans from the US.

The result was that they learned to be thrifty - their parents kept hens, a cow, grew their own vegetables, made and mended their own clothes, reused everything and learned to waste nothing.

I am Scottish. We Scots have long been famed for our thriftiness. Our detractors term it meanness or "miserliness", but Scots are typically very generous people - we are not mean, but by tradition we are thrifty - we do not like wastage.

In modern economic and capitalist thinking, the traditional virtues of "make do and mend", "waste not and want not", are portrayed as sins - we are meant to consume conspicuously, and trash "old" things with ever increasing frequency. We are expected to discard good food, mountains of plastic packaging, fully functional machines and furnishings, unworn clothes and shoes. If our consciences irk us, then we are advised to give our unwanted items to charities, and to throw our packaging into "recycle" bins.. just so long as we get rid of them and buy some new stuff.

I was taught, as a child, that it is sinful to waste things, and that it is a virtue to make the most of what we already have. I no longer believe in the Christian concept of sin, but I still base my life on ethics and this means I base it on virtues. For me it is still virtue to take (buy) only what I need, and to use it until it is no longer useful - in other words, "to waste not" is a virtue. It is similarly virtuous to share what I have with others. And virtue brings its own reward, which in this case is "to want not", in other words "to need nothing". Along with this comes peace of mind. Contentment comes from being happy with what we have, and enjoying that, whereas the desire for constant newness brings only a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction.

Contentment comes from accepting and appreciating what we have. Acceptance is a virtue. Appreciation is a virtue. These virtues bring happiness. Desire for that which we do not have brings discontentment - commercialism has sold us the lie that happiness comes from feeding our desires. But in reality when one desire is sated, another one arises immediately - there is no end to desire. Desire is not a virtue.

The coming economic Tsunami will force us back to virtue - we (the lucky amongst us) will learn once again to live simply and humbly, appreciating what we have and sharing it with each other. This will be a life of grace and contentment, in sharp contrast to our current lives of depression and satiety. We will relearn what our ancestors knew - how to enjoy the simple things in life.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

coping with collapse

I recently read Dmitry Orlov's fascinating article on "Closing the 'Collapse Gap'", where he compares the readiness of the USA to handle its impending economic collapse, in comparison to how Russia handled the collapse of the USSR. I certainly recommend it as a light-hearted yet thought-provoking read. I particularly like his "time-tested, time-saving approach to national politics, guaranteed to work for any collapsing superpower", viz:
Don't pay any attention to national politicians - it only encourages them. They are a colossal distraction. Stay focused. Don't even make fun of them (tempting though that is). If you completely ignore them, they will fade from view faster. In the words of Solzhenitsyn, "Don't believe them, don't fear them, don't ask anything of them."

And his advice:
when this economy collapses, it is bound to be much worse. Another point I would like to stress is that collapse here is likely to be permanent. The factors that allowed Russia and the other former Soviet republics to recover are not present here.

In spite of all this, I believe that in every age and circumstance, people can sometimes find not just a means and a reason to survive, but enlightenment, fulfillment, and freedom. If we can find them even after the economy collapses, then why not start looking for them now?

As he says:
Further economic growth is neither possible nor desirable. (The) modern industrial economy is not required for cultural or spiritual growth, and poses a threat to human survival.

Hear Hear!

In the spirit of looking for solutions rather than fixating on the problems, here are some extracts from Dmitry's recent blog post "Social Collapse Best Practices":

When the Soviet system went away, many people lost their jobs, everyone lost their savings, wages and pensions were held back for months, their value was wiped out by hyperinflation, there were shortages of food, gasoline, medicine, consumer goods, there was a large increase in crime and violence, and yet Russian society did not collapse...
the Communist experiment at constructing a worker's paradise on earth was, in the end, a failure. But as a side effect it inadvertently achieved a high level of collapse-preparedness. In comparison, the American system could produce significantly better results, for a time, but at the cost of creating and perpetuating a living arrangement that is very fragile, and not at all capable of holding together through the inevitable crash.

What we need are examples of things that have been shown to work in the strange, unfamiliar, post-collapse environment that we are all likely to have to confront.
You might think that when collapse happens, nothing works. That’s just not the case. The old ways of doing things don’t work any more, the old assumptions are all invalidated, conventional goals and measures of success become irrelevant. But a different set of goals, techniques, and measures of success can be brought to bear immediately, and the sooner the better.

If you thought that the previous episode of uncontrolled debt expansion, globalized Ponzi schemes, and economic hollowing-out was silly, then I predict that you will find this next episode of feckless grasping at macroeconomic straws even sillier. Except that it won’t be funny: what is crashing now is our life support system: all the systems and institutions that are keeping us alive. And so I don’t recommend passively standing around and watching the show – unless you happen to have a death wish.

Right now the Washington economic stimulus team is putting on their Scuba gear and diving down to the engine room to try to invent a way to get a diesel engine to run on seawater. They spoke of change, but in reality they are terrified of change and want to cling with all their might to the status quo. But this game will soon be over, and they don’t have any idea what to do next.

So, what is there for them to do? Forget “growth,” forget “jobs,” forget “financial stability.” What should their realistic new objectives be? Well, here they are: food, shelter, transportation, and security. Their task is to find a way to provide all of these necessities on an emergency basis, in absence of a functioning economy, with commerce at a standstill, with little or no access to imports, and to make them available to a population that is largely penniless. If successful, society will remain largely intact, and will be able to begin a slow and painful process of cultural transition, and eventually develop a new economy, a gradually de-industrializing economy, at a much lower level of resource expenditure, characterized by a quite a lot of austerity and even poverty, but in conditions that are safe, decent, and dignified.

Food. Shelter. Transportation. Security. ... in a collapse many economic negatives become positives, and vice versa. Let us consider each one of these in turn.

The Soviet agricultural sector was plagued by consistent under performance.... Collectivization undermined the ancient village-based agricultural traditions.... Although it was generally possible to survive on the foods available at the government stores, the resulting diet would have been rather poor, and so people tried to supplement it with food they gathered, raised, or caught, or purchased at farmers’ markets. Kitchen gardens were always common, and, once the economy collapsed, a lot of families took to growing food in earnest. The kitchen gardens, by themselves, were never sufficient, but they made a huge difference... it is important to remember that in Russia most people lived within walking distance of food shops, and used public transportation to get out to their kitchen gardens, which were often located in the countryside immediately surrounding the relatively dense, compact cities. This combination of factors made for some lean times, but very little malnutrition and no starvation.

In the United States, the agricultural system is heavily industrialized, and relies on inputs such as diesel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and, perhaps most importantly, financing... The food pipeline is long and thin, and it takes only a couple of days of interruptions for supermarket shelves to be stripped bare. Many people live in places that are not within walking distance of stores, not served by public transportation, and will be cut off from food sources once they are no longer able to drive.
Can we think of any ways to avoid this dismal scenario? ... The trick is to make small patches of farmland available for non-mechanical cultivation by individuals and families, in increments as small as 1000 square feet. The ideal spots would be fertile bits of land with access to rivers and streams for irrigation. Provisions would have to be made for campsites and for transportation, allowing people to undertake seasonal migrations out to the land to grow food during the growing season, and haul the produce back to the population centers after taking in the harvest.

An even simpler approach has been successfully used in Cuba: converting urban parking lots and other empty bits of land to raised-bed agriculture. Instead of continually trucking in vegetables and other food, it is much easier to truck in soil, compost, and mulch just once a season. Raised highways can be closed to traffic (since there is unlikely to be much traffic in any case) and used to catch rainwater for irrigation. Rooftops and balconies can be used for hothouses, henhouses, and a variety of other agricultural uses.
Moving on to shelter. In the Soviet Union, people did not own their place of residence. Everyone was assigned a place to live, which was recorded in a person’s internal passport. People could not be dislodged from their place of residence for as long as they drew oxygen... The apartment buildings were always built near public transportation, so they did not have to rely on private cars to get around. Apartment buildings are relatively cheap to heat, and municipal services easy to provide and maintain because of the short runs of pipe and cable. ... After the economy collapsed, people lost their savings, their jobs, but there were no foreclosures, no evictions, municipal services such as heat, water, and sometimes even hot water continued to be provided, and everyone had their families close by. Also, because it was so difficult to relocate, people generally stayed in one place for generations, and so they tended to know all the people around them.
In the US, most suburban houses are expensive to heat and cool, inaccessible by public transportation, expensive to hook up to public utilities because of the long runs of pipe and cable, and require a great deal of additional public expenditure on road, bridge and highway maintenance, school buses, traffic enforcement, and other nonsense. They often take up what was once valuable agricultural land. They promote a car-centric culture that is destructive of urban environments, causing a proliferation of dead downtowns. Many families that live in suburban houses can no longer afford to live in them, and expect others to bail them out. As this living arrangement becomes unaffordable for all concerned, it will also become unlivable... The inevitable result will be a mass migration of suburban refugees toward the more survivable, more densely settled towns and cities. The luckier ones will find friends or family to stay with.
One obvious answer is to re-purpose the ever-plentiful vacant office buildings for residential use. Converting offices to dormitories is quite straightforward. Many of them already have kitchens and bathrooms, plenty of partitions and other furniture, and all they are really missing is beds. Putting in beds is just not that difficult. The new, subsistence economy is unlikely to generate the large surpluses that are necessary for sustaining the current large population of office plankton. The businesses that once occupied these offices are not coming back, so we might as well find new and better uses for them.
College campuses make perfect community centers: there are dormitories for newcomers, fraternities and sororities for the more settled residents, and plenty of grand public buildings that can be put to a variety of uses. A college campus normally contains the usual wasteland of mowed turf that can be repurposed to grow food, or, at the very least, hay, and to graze cattle.
Moving on to transportation. Here, we need to make sure that people don’t get stranded in places that are not survivable. Then we have to provide for seasonal migrations to places where people can grow, catch, or gather their own food, and then back to places where they can survive the winter without freezing to death or going stir-crazy from cabin fever. Lastly, some amount of freight will have to be moved, to transport food to population centers, as well as enough coal and firewood to keep the pipes from freezing in the remaining habitable dwellings.
There will be widespread hoarding, quite a lot of gasoline will simply evaporate into the atmosphere, vented from various jerricans and improvised storage containers, the rest will disappear into the black market, and much fuel will be wasted driving around looking for someone willing to part with a bit of gas that’s needed for some small but critical mission.
So, what can we do to get our little critical missions accomplished in spite of chronic fuel shortages? The most obvious idea, of course, is to not use any fuel. Bicycles, and cargo bikes in particular, are an excellent adaptation. Sailboats are a good idea too: not only do they hold large amounts of cargo, but they can cover huge distances, all without the use of fossil fuels. Of course, they are restricted to the coastlines and the navigable waterways. They will be hampered by the lack of dredging due to the inevitable budget shortfalls, and by bridges that refuse to open, again, due to lack of maintenance funds, but here ancient maritime techniques and improvisations can be brought to bear to solve such problems, all very low-tech and reasonably priced.

Of course, cars and trucks will not disappear entirely. I advocated banning the sale of new cars, as was done in the US during World War II. The benefits are numerous. First, older cars are overall more energy-efficient than new cars, because the massive amount of energy that went into manufacturing them is more highly amortized. Second, large energy savings accrue from the shutdown of an entire industry devoted to designing, building, marketing, and financing new cars. Third, older cars require more maintenance, reinvigorating the local economy at the expense of mainly foreign car manufacturers, and helping reduce the trade deficit. Fourth, this will create a shortage of cars, translating automatically into fewer, shorter car trips, higher passenger occupancy per trip, and more bicycling and use of public transportation, saving even more energy. Lastly, this would allow the car to be made obsolete on the about the same time scale as the oil industry that made it possible. We will run out of cars just as we run out of gas.
The idea of making cars more efficient by making more efficient cars is sheer folly. I can take any pick-up truck and increase its fuel efficiency one or two thousand percent just by breaking a few laws. First, you pack about a dozen people into the bed, standing shoulder to shoulder like sardines. Second, you drive about 25 mph, down the highway, because going any faster would waste fuel and wouldn’t be safe with so many people in the back. And there you are, per passenger fuel efficiency increased by a factor of 20 or so. I believe the Mexicans have done extensive research in this area, with excellent results.

Another excellent idea pioneered in Cuba is making it illegal not to pick up hitchhikers. Cars with vacant seats are flagged down and matched up with people who need a lift... One final transportation idea: start breeding donkeys. Horses are finicky and expensive, but donkeys can be very cost-effective and make good pack animals. Apparently, donkeys can digest any kind of cellulose... if I had a donkey, I would feed it the Wall Street Journal.

And so we come to the subject of security. Post-collapse Russia suffered from a serious crime wave. Ethnic mafias ran rampant, veterans who served in Afghanistan went into business for themselves, there were numerous contract killings, muggings, murders went unsolved left and right, and, in general, the place just wasn’t safe...

American society (will transform) in rather predictable ways. As municipalities run out of money... we will have former soldiers, former police, and former prisoners... a country awash with various categories of armed men, most of them unemployed, and many of them borderline psychotic... All of them will be making good use of their weapons training and other professional skills to acquire whatever they need to survive.
In a post-collapse context, not having to worry whether or not something is legal may be a very good thing.
Security is very important... People must be ready to come to each other’s defense, take responsibility for each other, and do what’s right. Right now, security is provided by a number of bloated, bureaucratic, ineffectual institutions... Once these institutions run out of resources, there will be a period of upheaval, but in the end people will be forced to learn to deal with each other face to face, and Justice will once again become a personal virtue rather than a federal department.

The basics are food, shelter, transportation, and security. Shelter ... is still very much overpriced.. The solution, of course, is to cut your losses and stop paying... there is no shortage of vacant properties around. Finding a good place to live will become less and less of a problem as people stop paying their rents and mortgages and get foreclosed or evicted. The best course of action is to become a property caretaker, legitimately occupying a vacant property rent-free, and keeping an eye on things for the owner... you take care of the property, but you also look out for all the squatters, because they are the reason you have a legitimate place to live. A squatter in hand is worth three absentee landlords in the bush. The absentee landlord might eventually cut his losses and go away, but your squatter friends will remain as your neighbors. Having some neighbors is so much better than living in a ghost town.

What if you still have a job? How do you prepare then? The obvious answer is, be prepared to quit or to be laid off or fired at any moment... the point is to sustain zero psychological damage in the process... spending as little money as possible, so than when the job goes away, not much has to change. While at work, do as little as possible, because all this economic activity is just a terrible burden on the environment. Just gently ride it down to a stop and jump off.
If you still have some savings, what do you do with all the money? The obvious answer is, build up inventory. The money will be worthless, but a box of bronze nails will still be a box of bronze nails. Buy and stockpile useful stuff, especially stuff that can be used to create various kinds of alternative systems for growing food, providing shelter, and providing transportation. If you don’t own a patch of dirt free and clear where you can stockpile stuff, then you can rent a storage container, pay it a few years forward, and just sit on it until reality kicks in again and there is something useful for you to do with it. Some of you may be frightened by the future I just described, and rightly so. There is nothing any of us can do to change the path we are on: it is a huge system with tremendous inertia, and trying to change its path is like trying to change the path of a hurricane. What we can do is prepare ourselves, and each other, mostly by changing our expectations, our preferences, and scaling down our needs... by refashioning yourself into someone who might stand a better chance of adapting to the new circumstances, you will be able to give to yourself, and to others, a great deal of hope that would otherwise not exist.

Food for thought, indeed!

Sunday, 15 February 2009

the growth of the future

In the eloquent words of Dan W, from his "ashes to ashes" blog:

what’s good for the masses of people can be boiled down to what’s good for small communities of people, and for families, and for individuals. And what does that look like? It seems pretty simple to me: a healthy planet, cooperative communities, existing to better oneself and the community in which one lives without regard for profit, good food, good music, friends. I would argue that, were the planet to consist of 6 million communities of 1000 souls or fewer, all independent of one another and yet connected through sharing resources and celebration and mutual aid, that this could be, overall, a relatively happy planet.

Systemic collapse is about change for the better. Yes, I know this sounds grim and scarily depressing, and in some ways it is. And there will be suffering. But is there no suffering already? And will there be no suffering in the future? All I'm putting out there is that systemic collapse allows us the chance to return to sanity, for freedom from a global system of usury and debt-slavery. And while our leaders cry and plead for us to help them NOT allow the system to collapse, we in fact may be better off as a species if it did.

Look, we have a choice here. You may not think so because the jerks have done a helluva job convincing us that we don’t have a choice. But we do! Yes, I am angry. The planet is dying. Billions are starving. A 3000 year old system of conquest and colonialism and slavery is, at this very moment, up for a revote. As the economies of the world collapse, a new world is waiting to be born. I happen to believe that if we can face this struggle with clarity and courage, we may be able to save the future. It truly is time to get busy living.

Mother Earth is speaking. She's telling us something. With Bleached Coral and Melting Ice Sheets and Acid Rain and Disappearing Atolls and Poisonous Peanut Butter and Diasporic Tropical Diseases and Deadly Desertification, Mother Earth is telling us to stop growing.

She is telling us to relent in our seeming obsession with economic expansion. She is telling us to live smaller, quieter, more sustainable lives.
The answer to this economic crisis lies not in our ability to stimulate growth, but in our ability to live within our means: ecologially, financially, communally.

The old patradigm of continuous economic growth was never sustainable - it is simply impossible, mathematically, to keep expanding our use of resources at a constant growth rate, especially as this means, in effect, exponential growth. Exponential means accelerating. Accelerate, accelerate, accelerate, and what happens? Crash.. kaBOOM. This is very simple to understand, and yet none of our governments or their economists seem to understand it. And so we find ourselves being led out of the darkness by the blind. Will they find the light? No chance.

The new paradigm is of sustainability. This means reducing our economic activity. As Dan says, we must learn "to live smaller, quieter, more sustainable lives". Not growth, but shrinkage. Less, not more. We have to simplify, and we have to regroup in smaller communities.

back to Dan:

Let’s return yet once again to the subject of growth. This spring and summer, we will be growing spinach and kale and carrots and tomatoes and parsley and turnips and radishes and squash. We will be canning and drying and saving and preparing for the future. I suggest you do so as well. As a family we will spend many-an-hour at the local orchard, picking apples, lugging them home, drying them out, and storing the product for the lean times to follow....

The only growth that matters now are the foods that you grow to save your family and the connections that you nurture in your communities to band together during this nuclear winter of an economic meltdown. We are truly entering the wilderness.

He says it so much better than I can.. we must start preparing for the simple life, or else get ready to perish.

The existing systems are already broken. They are beyond repair. We should waste no more of our time or effort on attempting to repair them. Instead we must prepare the new systems to replace them.