Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, August 29, 2011

Problem Is, I'm Uneconomic

See, the problem is, I'm unecomomic.  I don't like money.  I don't care if I make one red cent beyond the very modest expenses in my life.  And I will ultimately learn to do without even that meager requirment.  I don't have a "business plan."  I don't have a "marketing strategy."  I don't have any advice for anyone about ways to make money.  Nor do I want any of those things.  Which, to the western mind, means I'm useless. 

Not that that's a universal opinion, it's just the way the industrial consumer culture views things.  What I'm aiming to do is productive, in the realest sense of the word, but it's probably not profitable.  That's the bummer to the western capitalist.  He views worth through how busy he is, how much money he makes, how many projects he's got in the works, how full his calendar is.  More importantly, the western economic mind sees the greatest merit represented by the most money made for the least physical effort.  In fact, the ideal scenario for the western employee is to get paid without having to work.  "Investments" we usually call them, or every now and then, "lottery winnings."  Which meshes wonderfully, for a while, with the western employer's ideal of productivity without labor costs.  If it saves human labor, it's a good thing, right?  Sure, again, for a while.

Until the tool becomes the machine, the craftsman becomes the mechanic, the slave to the machine that has taken his skilled craft away from him, and reduced him to an unskilled cog in the process, someone who can be replaced more easily than he could have been before.  A rat that simply punches the bar for labor kibble.  There is no more pride in his work.  The human spirit is crushed, work becomes drudgery, something to be avoided, or at best, a sacrifice barely worth making in exchange for a paycheck.  Automation maximizes profits, minimizes human worth, and churns out more "product" to be consumed.  Not that those products inspire any admiration, or respect, far from it.  I mean, it's not as if an actual person made them.  There's no one to be offended if you don't keep it in good shape.  Matter of fact, according to western consumer philosophy, mistreating the "product" would be the most desirable outcome of all, since that means you'll be buying anther one soon.  So the production wheel keeps spinning, the mountain of trash keeps growing, and the work of industrial man grows more dysfunctional.  That's the western way.

Affluence in America is determined by how much you consume.  How much you spend.  How much you travel.  How full your calendar is.  And it isn't offset by flimsy "carbon credits," no matter how warm and fuzzy that would make us feel if it were true.  (Read my article on carbon crediting if you want to know why.)

So if not a consumer, who could you compare me to that might be a real producer instead?  What do we mean by "producer"?  A farmer perhaps?  Surely they produce things, right?  They produce enough to feed the U.S. and then some, don't they!  Sure they do, but, to make my trifecta of this point complete, industrial food production creates a net drain on global resources.  It's not a procreative process but a destructive one.  We're spending our capital, not our income.  Like I mentioned in the last post, and can't seem to say enough, even at our best every calorie of food that hits the American table required 5 calories of energy to get there.  That's a five-fold loss on our investement.  At best.  It's like spending $500 to make $100.  And that works, for a while, when there's lots and lots of cheap energy to burn, and so many places to hide the trash.  Sometimes that behavior is even praised in the most esteemed halls of academia on Earth.  For a while.

Somehow that's considered "economic," and if by economic you mean it makes lots of money for a few people for a short period of human history, you'd be right.  But if by "economic" you mean that these are the important transactions for long-term human well-being, you'd be dead wrong.  Turning trees into paper currency is a losing arrangement; toxifying oceans and smothering estuaries to create digital wealth is myopic; laying waste to continents' worth of topsoil in the name of economic progress is nothing short of suicidal. 

I don't want to call myself a "farmer".  An industrial era farmer is the epitome of efficiency, but the antithesis of resilience.  Every day, whether he knows it or not, he trades his bedrock for a matchstick tower.  He depends on cheap abundant energy to fuel his tractors, to fertilize his crops, to kill the weeds in the fields, and even more so to harvest, process, and ship his ingredients to the industrial value-adders in far away cities, who spend an enormous amount of energy themselves to get those products to the consuming public.  A five hundred percent energy loss is being pretty generous, all told.  I have no aspirations to be that guy.  I'm not a farmer.  I'm not a usurper.  I have no more interest in spending my children's natural capital than I do in acquring the money it's converted into.  I'm a gardener, a horticulturalist, and potentially I represent a net reduction of carbon within the system.  That's how I would define a "producer".  An actual producer, by definition, like an autotroph, a plant.  Although I know a few humans who are doing it.  Heroes.  People who should be winning major awards, people we should all be aspiring to emulate.  That's the ideal for me.  But farming, agriculture, as it is practiced today, is spending Earth's natural capital faster than any other industry.

And it's, almost by definition, a temporary arrangement.  Anyone who assumes that this equation can continue to function indefinitely is nuts.  But what about "green" energy, or "renewables"?  Sorry, no.  Solar panels have an enormous environmental price tag.  And although they do have the potential to ease the pain of transition from industrial culture to some low-energy sustainable future, the economic buoyancy to perpetuate that technology just wouldn't be around any more, after the first generation or two.  I use them, but I do so with the full understanding that I am in a privileged position, with the foresight to cash in on that option while it exists.  Even if we did master a "free," "too-cheap-to-meter," energy source, like nuclear or cold fusion, it would only do two things for us: 1) create more humans (all with very real, not-at-all-free, too-cheap-to-meter needs), and 2) increase consumption.  That's Jevon's Paradox.  Education is often invoked as the antidote to overpopulation, but educated masses are consuming masses.  Apparently you either have lots of children, or you have lots of "needs."  (Although you can have both!)  Jevon's Paradox is a real bitch, ain't it?  And it proves our animal nature.  We aren't enlightened above the other animals.  Clever, yes, extremely, but enlightened would indicate that we have the means to perpetuate our species' existense come what may.  Which we probably don't.  I have a feeling we're already way out into borrowed time, thanks to cheap oil. 

The only thing that would change either of those life-threatening problems is a wholesale change in what is considered "economic".  In other words, our view of economics is the most threatening thing to our long-term well-being.  The west would basically have to toss its entire economic theory out on its ears.  We would have to adopt a worldview that most honored the affluence achieved by the least consumption. It would depend on a lifestyle that kept us all a lot closer to home, living in a way that, if not steeped in mutual respect for the other life forms around us, at least understood that humans benefit from robust ecologies.  That dualistic perspective keeps us thinking that humans and broader nature can't both thrive.  That a certain amount of give and take is inevitable.  And foolishness keeps us thinking that we can live an utterly unsustainable lifestyle once we find "the right energy" for the job.  There's nothing wrong with a lower energy way of life.  It's been said that Americans could cut 80% of their energy use and not suffer any real reduction in standard of living.  It doesn't require new technologies, nor expensive rollout or retooling programs, it simply requires behavioral innovation.  It requires us to become a lot more aware of our actions.  It requires us to become genuinely responsible, no matter what others might think about us, or how it impacts our crammed calendars.

Problem is, it's always someone else's fault.  What I do, personally, isn't the real problem.  I'm a hard worker, I'm productive, I help people.  Which is likely all true, in a sense, but in the end, if our activities, however noble, require an unsustainable amount of energy to accomplish, then we are a net drain on the system.  We are compromising our children's future.  Stacks of paper currency don't create rain, nor do they build topsoil very effectively.  iPhones don't have an app for normalizing an unbalanced oceanic pH, nor one for bringing back the bluefin tuna.  When the desert encroaches on our formerly lush countrysides no amount of money will make it verdant again.  Only a radical change in the way we do business, an overhaul of our value system, a wholesale reversal of bad habits, and probably a whole lot fewer humans, will make any difference at all. 

There is no way to do it "economically."  Repairing the Earth isn't a growth industry.  Permaculture represents a radical new paradigm because it flies in the face of convention.  It trades profit for permanence.  It diffuses planetary wealth into a system that benefits all, not just a few, not just for a while.  It grasps the concept that humans benefit from robust ecologies, that Nature's gain is also our own.  Until energy future steering committees start discussing radical conservation measures, I'm not interested.  I'm not interested in how we're going to retool the dirty fossil fuel infrastructure with a clean green version, because there is no such thing.  If we have access to energy we use it.  That's as intractable a fact of Nature as there is.

Not using as much energy is the only pathway to sustainability.  When that concept guides the discussion then I'll participate.  But until then I remain, humbly, "uneconomic."


  1. Great essay, Tripp. John Michael Greer had a similar post over at the Arch Druid Report a couple of weeks ago. Efficiency vs resilience.

    A lot of the things I do may not be very efficient, but if the power goes down, they will be very resilient. Growing potatoes may not be very efficient as they are so cheap in the store. But if the road washes out or the store runs out of potatoes, I'll be in a very resilient position. Then there are the intangibles attached to a lack of efficiency. The pleasure in growing my own potatoes and the better taste.

  2. If that poast rubbed someone the wrong way, they've been literally asleep at the wheel for decades. I wouldn't bother sympathizing with the *infidels* - LOL!!!

    I'd be more concerned about where that hay/compost is coming from, and actually how sequesterative (word? LOL) a garden is, when all its' carbon is hauled away from some other depleted field... I've always had problems getting solid carbon to compost into the soil. Burning yard debris creates excellent compost/fertilizer, but most carbon is lost, via burning, into the atmosphere/deep space (along with fossil fuels/subsidized ethanol crops).