Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Friday, August 5, 2011

Manufacturing Descent

On more than one occasion I’ve heard people claim that they aren’t very good at negotiating favorable bartering transactions. Since I’m a pretty mild-mannered guy myself I can say that I’ve had the same issue. I’m just not an A-type, get-every-penny-you-can, hard-nosed trader. Some folks take a lot of pride in being those people, but I feel safe in saying that I will probably never be one of them. Somebody balks at my price and I tend to drop it without any further discussion. Even if I know it’s worth more than I’m asking.

But I’ve found a way around the need to be someone I don’t particularly want to be, and I thought I’d share it with you folks who would prefer to make more friends than money. But first, let’s discuss what trade and production were like for the last few hundred years.

In the rapid growth phase it was actually adaptive to waste energy in order to capture more energy. The energy wasted could always be reacquired because there was so much cheap abundant energy available, and the magnitude of that energy supply made even the handling and export of massive amounts of waste possible, an added cost that didn’t really have to be faced. For example, every calorie of food energy that arrives on the American table today required at least 5 calories of energy to get it there, and sometimes many more than that (about 80 per for off-season Chilean asparagus). And the disposal of the waste that food chain produces, both human waste and industrial, isn’t even accounted for in those numbers. Even without it, that’s a pretty sad return on our investment, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this equation is entirely unsustainable in the long view. But, our energy situation being what it was – which was rather like hitting the lottery in the case of the industrial world – this negative energy return was actually an acceptable way to do business in an era of fossil fuel-based excess, just like dropping fistfuls of hundred dollar bills would be if you had millions to spend before you died of a terminal illness.

In a more realistic future, which is, happily, where we find ourselves headed in August of 2011, this sort of inefficiency will never fly. Oh we’ll try everything we can think of, like GMOs and hydroponics, ethanol and electric vehicles, but in the end we’ll need to realize an actual net gain of energy from our activities, or Mother Nature will see to it that we don’t get another shot at it. This means that far more people will be in smaller scale versions of the food, fiber, and fuel production business – I have my estimation set at 80% within my lifetime (that’s 78% higher than today in roughly the next half century) – and that we will all be travelling a whole, whole lot less. As in, 40 miles with cargo might be a MAJOR hassle. Big claims, I know, but a culture that has arranged every detail of its affairs around optimal conditions at the peak of its energy supply, during a period of the fairest weather in the planet’s history, and then gone on to borrow everything the next 4 or 5 generations had to offer (or could have potentially benefitted from themselves), all the while assuming that cancerous growth rates were the normal mode of human existence, will find the bottom of the overshoot/collapse curve in a hurry, I’m afraid.

Dark tidings aside (and I highly doubt they’ll end up as dark as they sound initially to the industrial mind), in a world of declining energy availability, the key to success in all matters of trade and barter will lie in what I call the “perennialization of the swap.” Always trade for something that will last longer, or more importantly, something that can reproduce itself. In other words, procreative system elements. If you sell a pregnant doe rabbit and her cage for $50, you better darn well make sure that $50 is going into something even more productive than a pregnant mama bunny, and that’s tough to manage. Maybe a large water catchment vessel you found on sale, or a really good scythe. But a piece of unsolicited advice from ol’ Tripp: don’t sell pregnant doe rabbits. Don’t trade soap for bread. Don’t trade a year’s supply of medicinal cream for a month’s supply of honey. DO trade produce with a shelf life for art or freezer beef. Do trade mushroom logs for fruit trees. Or goats. Always aim to capture and store energy with your trade. That way you can relax a little in the “getting your full trade’s worth” department. Barter your bread for chicks, not concerning yourself with getting a favorable dollar value trade, and rest comfortably in the knowledge that the perishable bread you just traded away can now feed you consistently into the foreseeable future. That bread wouldn’t have lasted a week, and would have seriously declined in quality in just a day or two; but the chicks you now have will grow and lay eggs, and produce more chicks down the road. Well-managed you might just have that chicken thing taken care of forever. Not to mention another potential income stream from the sale of chicks and/or eggs. All from a little bread. Talk about multiplying the feast.

The permacultural barterer will always aim to “de-annualize” his holdings, always look to gain perennial structures in exchange for annual ones. (Decaying US dollars fit the “annual” description quite nicely!) Turn candles into pecan trees, and honey into hives, and you will never walk away from a deal feeling like you’ve been had.

The growth phase of human history was, paradoxically, responsible for creating an atmosphere of scarcity, and extreme competition – the drivers that fostered the emergence of the hard-nosed trader. All of which was totally natural because there was so much to fight over. In the contractionary future, when there is less to fight over every generation, we will slowly return to a life of cyclical abundance within Nature’s background rhythms (following an undoubtedly rocky period in transition), but in my humble opinion, “perennializing the trade” is how we will effectively manufacture descent.

On a separate note: my wife and I have decided we don’t want an internet connection at home any longer. We wish to return the internet to its proper place as a tool in our lives, and find that hard to accomplish when it’s always available to us. We disconnected almost two weeks ago and have already benefitted tremendously from that decision. After taking some wonderful vacation time in July, this is my first blog post broadcast from the local library. Just a warning that my comment responses might be a bit slower coming due to the nature of a shared community resource several miles away from home, but by all means, keep commenting. That’s my favorite part of blogging.


  1. And there is always trading labor!

    Glad you're doing well. Miss you on Kunstler.

  2. Brilliant post Tripp. I am jealous of your internetlessness. I am married to a media junky and I still haven't convinced her to shut off the cable tv. And the only way I'll pull that one off is if we can get apple TV happenin'. At least nature will be on my side at some point.

  3. Interesting post. I'm not good at bartering or talking others into buying my art and had never really thought it through. Very interesting.

    Tripp, I wish I didn't rely so much on the computer for my writing. Of course, I could stop cold-turkey and wait until manuscripts are ready to type them, but I'm undeniably addicted to the ease of the computer. But with the ease, comes moments of pure guilt. Guilt that I've surfed the internet when I should have been pulling weeds and reading a real book. Many guilts. Oh well...You're not my psychologist.

  4. Thanks for the post. I, also, am no good at bartering. I just hate the wrangling. I put an honest price on my goods. I feel cheap and dirty when I have to think, well, it's well worth $150 but I'll have to put $175 on it, so that when someone asks me to drop my price, I will get what I want and what it is worth.

    When I was in the "junk" biz, I had coffee cups for $1 each. A woman asked me if she could have 2 for $1. When I hesitated, she said it would make her "feel better."

    I used to sit around and watch the "cracker barrel boys" in a "guys place" (lots of military collectibles, scouting stuff, old tools, etc. Probably a gun or two, under the counter) wheel, deal and barter. Some of them would loose sleep and agonize because they either 1.) sold something for too little or 2.) bought something for too much. End of rant.

    But thanks for this column. Gives me a whole new way to look at the barter, reciprocal obligation kind of exchanges. Got a whole bunch of really nice books on weaving the other day that I'm trading for one of the two table looms I have, once I dig them out.

    But I'm still one of those guys who has a hard time asking for help or accepting gifts, due to the obligation involved. At least I realize that this is a problem, and I'm working on it. Your post helps sort out my old internal dialogue.