Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Human Machinations

The myth of the machine has implications, which go well beyond the usual terms of discussion in the peak oil scene. One of those implications unfolds from the way that so many people, who are concerned about peak oil, fixate obsessively on the hope that some kind of machine will solve the problem.

There are at least three ways, in which this fixation gets in the way of any meaningful response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. The first, of course, is that peak oil isn't a problem; because by definition a problem, at least potentially, has a solution. Peak oil has no solution. That's true in the narrow sense of the term - no possible turn of events will allow industrial civilization to extract a limitless supply of crude oil from a finite planet.

Peak oil is, thus, a predicament rather than a problem; since nothing we or anyone else can do will make it go away. Instead, we and our descendants down through the millennia to come, will have to live with the reality of a world much less lavishly stocked with concentrated energy sources; than the one our ancestors inherited a few short centuries ago. The task awaiting us, and our descendants, is that of finding creative and humane responses to that implacable reality.

The second sense, in which the obsession with machines gets in the way of a useful response to the predicament of peak oil, is that it pushes responsibility for doing something onto someone else. The downside of depending on someone else to do that or any other job, of course, is that dependence always has a political cost. Frank Herbert explains this with commendable precision: "Once men turned their thinking over to machines, in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them."

The same dynamic is present whenever people allow themselves to become dependent on machines. Its doubtful whether ordinary people have any influence worth noting over the decisions involved in building giant wind turbines say, or developing thorium reactors, or turning arable land into giant biodiesel farms. This makes it easy to insist that, steps like these, are the appropriate response to the coming of peak oil.

No doubt, the sheer convenience involved in this approach has much to do with its popularity; but there's another factor involved. An enormous amount of rhetoric about the future these days starts from the assumption that, the lifestyles of the middle classes in today's industrial societies are normal and ought to be available indefinitely - at least to those same middle classes. There's nothing normal at all about strawberries in midwinter or vacations in the tropics, only a civilization surfing a tsunami of cheap energy could convince itself that such habits are.

It's hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively, than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. A laptop computer all by itself is an oddly shaped paperweight; human beings do not suffer from the same limitations. A human being all by itself is capable of meeting essential operating needs in a pinch, using only the very diffuse energy sources and raw materials available in a natural environment.

Computers by contrast need electricity, and thus the entire system that produces the electricity and keeps it flowing. To make a laptop computer more than a toy, you need the internet, and thus a far more complex system; which among other things uses a vast amount of additional energy. And, of course, to produce the laptop; the electrical grid and the internet in the first place. Counting all the products and services needed by all the economic sectors that contribute to their manufacture and functioning, you need a fairly large proportion of the entire industrial economy of the modern world.

The myth of industrial progress is coming to pieces around us; the myth of the machine will follow it in due time. In the interval before they dissolve and are replaced by narratives better suited to the needs and possibilities of the deindustrial age, there is a great deal that can be done to begin the rediscovery of the human, to preserve those teachings from the past that can fill critical needs in the future, and to sketch out the first rough drafts of new disciplines that will apply the creative and productive possibilities of the individual to the challenges ahead.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Blackboard Blogger

Alfred Sirleaf is an analog blogger. He runs the “Daily News”, a news hut by the side of a major road in the middle of Monrovia. He started it a number of years ago, stating that he wanted to get news into the hands of those who couldn’t afford newspapers, in the language that they could understand.

Alfred serves as a reminder that simple is often better, just because it works. The lack of electricity never throws him off. The lack of funding means he’s creative in ways that he recruits people from around the city and country to report news to him. He uses his cell phone as the major point of connection between him and the 10,000 (he says) that read his blackboard daily.

Not all Liberians who read his news are literate, so he makes use of symbols. Whether it’s a UN or military helmet, a poster of a soccer player or a bottle of colored water to denote gas prices, he is determined to get the message out in any way that he can. Advertising works here too. It’s $5 to be on the bottom level, $10 to be on the sideboard and $25 on the main section. He doesn’t get a lot of advertising, but he manages to scrape by.

His plans for the future include decentralizing his work; this means opening up identical locations, in other parts of Monrovia, and in a few of the larger cities around the country. One shouldn't bet against Alfred either, he’s a scrappy entrepreneur on a mission to bring information and news to ordinary Liberians. He’s succeeded thus far, and has every chance to expand his idea.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Economics of Obedience

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings — Wendell Berry

My friend, Richard Hames, proposes a challenging hypothesis – “our present consensus state is delusional, as is our belief that we access information and our resulting belief that we’re informed. For instance, has capitalism worked when the largest communist country on earth actually owns a controlling interest in the debt of the largest capitalist country? Has our social conscience evolved when there are more humans (per capita) in slavery today, than at any recorded period of history?

Vast numbers of people are in a similar state today; they have little conception of the freedom, democracy or liberty they supposedly have in abundance.” However, this state is beginning to shift. Éttiene de la Boétie, in his famous discourse on voluntary servitude, poses the central question: “Why do people consent to their own enslavement?” One of his central insights is that, to topple a tyranny, the victims only need to withdraw their consent and support.

La Boétie also had the further insight that humans are free by nature, but possibly the most important lesson we can learn from his discourse is leverage. In the absence of leverage, or the use of it, victims bring about their own subjugation i.e. they ‘win’ their own enslavement. Thus, people who lose their freedom also lose their valor (strength of mind, bravery); and with it their ability to respond.

Since freedom is our natural state, we are not only in possession of it, but we should have the instinct to defend it. Defenders of freedom used to be ineffective because they were not known to one another. In fact, facing the enormous powers arrayed to maintain the status quo, our minds quail in anguish. The temporary glimpses of a more beautiful world are all the more disheartening when viewed as temporary respites from the soul-crushing, money-driven world we are used to.

But, there are always some people who cannot be tamed, subjugated or enslaved. Even if freedom were to be entirely extinguished, these people would re-invent it. Among these people, who have freed their minds, there is competition to do good for humanity - no matter what the odds are. We see their work in the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, as inner-city permaculture, with social entrepreneurship and many other engagements that are changing our world.

We humans have learned a lot in the last half-century, and our consciousness has reached a critical point in its development. It will be the same as it is with transformation on a personal level. In transitioning into a new way of being, we might revisit the old once or twice and try to fit back into the womb; but when we do, we find that it can no longer accommodate us, and a state of being we once inhabited for years becomes intolerable in weeks or days.

Take wealth for instance. A corollary to the non-hoarding of gifts and to the social nature of their giving is that wealth in gift cultures tends to be publicly transparent. When wealth was land and livestock, there was no hiding one’s wealth; and therefore no shirking the social expectations incumbent upon it. Everyone knew who had given what to whom. Translated into modern money dynamics, this suggests that all monetary holdings should be transparent.

Many people would find the idea of no financial privacy very threatening. Since money today is so bound up with self, we would feel exposed, vulnerable - as indeed, in today’s society, we would be. In a different context, though, financial transparency is part of being a person who has nothing to fear, who is comfortable in a future society. Moreover, financial transparency would make many kinds of criminal activity more difficult.

The history of civilization is also a journey from original abundance, to the extremes of scarcity and then back toward abundance at a higher level of complexity. Whether or not there ever was, or still is, a conspiracy to maintain scarcity; on some level humanity has not been ready for abundance, and probably won’t be ready for some decades to come, until we have entered deeply and thoroughly the spirit of the gift. It is our perceptions, and not our means, that engender scarcity.

We cannot predict how this new age will unfold in linear time. We do sense, however, that by the end of our lifetimes, we will live in a world unimaginably more beautiful than the one we were born into. And it will be a world that is palpably improving year after year. Work will be about: “How may I best give of my gifts?” instead of, “How can I make a living?” We will live in a richness of intimacy and community that hardly exists today.