Wednesday 25 October 2023

The Porcupine Saga, Part 6, The Sign Above Our Gate

Allan Harper, later on Tuesday, April 9, 2030

Allan Harper left the old farmhouse and walked across the yard to the big pole barn where they'd been piling everyone's stuff as it came in, ready to be sorted out and distributed. It was getting dark, but a "dusk to dawn" light on a wood pole illuminated the area, and he easily made his way to the person-sized door in the east wall of the building. Entering, he called out, "Dad, you in there?"

"Yeah," Tom replied, "I'm back this way."

Allan picked his way between piles and found his Dad seated at a table which held an elderly desktop computer and a big printer. Behind him were several tables of seedlings with grow lights above and heating pads underneath. Tom had been working on them for the last few weeks—the pole barn was not, strictly speaking, heated, but it had been a warm spring thus far and the plants were doing well.

He nodded to his father and said, "I guess I owe you an apology."

"Maybe so," said Tom, turning away from the computer so he could face Allan. "I gotta tell you that 'fascist' shit cuts pretty deep."

"Yeah, I can see that," said Allan. "So, sorry. But...well, a lot of what you say really does sound fascist to me."

"I am puzzled by that," said Tom, "I've spent a lot of time, on my blog and on social media—even in person, sometimes—helping people identify fascism and talking about what is wrong with it. As I understand it, the two essential things about fascism are: one, a belief in inequality, that some people are significantly better than others, and we would do well to let those superior people lead, and two, that there is an essential identity, often based on race, that characterizes that elite. Right?"

"Sure," said Allan, "no argument there. But there are other elements to fascism, and eco-fascism is one of them. Whenever you start talking about over population as the world's main problem, you set off my 'eco-fascist' detector."

"I think there must be a little more to it than that," said Tom. "Eco-fascist are by definition right wing, which I am certainly not, and they are against immigration, which I am also not. As I was reading just now on Wikipedia, they 'embrace the idea of climate change as a divinely-ordained signal to begin a mass purge of sections of the human race', which I certainly don't agree with."

"So you say," said Allan, "but then you go on and make a liar of yourself."

"How so?" asked Tom, with a puzzled look on his face.

"Well," replied Allan, "you brought up the ideas of carrying capacity and overshoot—overshoot by 170%, I think you said—which implies mega, or maybe even giga, death, and mainly in the third world countries. All very handy for an eco-fascist, who would love to see all those poor, brown people gotten rid of. Environmentalism through genocide, it's been called."

"But I don't think overpopulation is our main problem," said Tom. "And I am not suggesting that we get rid of anyone. Maybe you need to look at little deeper into what I really am saying. Will you give me a chance to explain?"

"Sure," said Allan, "go for it. And you can start with this thing about overpopulation not being the problem—it's seems to me that it follows obviously when you start talking about carrying capacity and overshoot."

"Well, I've met a lot of people who do indeed think that connection is obvious," said Tom, "but I'm not one of them. I think you and I need to talk more about carrying capacity, but first we need to consider the other side of the calculation—the idea of impact. If our impact on the planet is greater than its carrying capacity, then we are in overshoot. Impact is the product of three factors: population, affluence and technology. I=PAT. Affluence, which is equivalent to consumption, is, in my opinion, the thing we should be focusing on. Overconsumption rather than overpopulation."

Tom reached back toward the table and picked up a sheet of paper, which he passed to Allan. "That's a diagram that I've been using as my banner on Facebook for years. I think it sums up some pretty significant information."

"OK, let's see," said Allan, "this plots percentage of total world consumption against income divided into deciles."

"That's right" said Tom, "see anything significant?"

"Well, it looks like the top decile—the richest 10% of the world's population—are doing almost 60% of the consuming," replied Allan, "and at the other end, the poorest people are consuming very little."

"Exactly," said Tom. "So if we did as the eco-fascists recommend—got rid of, say, the poorest half of the people living today—what effect would that have on our degree of overshoot? To make that easier for you, I've added it up—the poorest half of us only do about 7% of the consumption."

"Well," said Allan, pulling his smart phone out and starting up a calculator app, "if we are really 170% into overshoot, then reducing consumption by 7%... that's .93 times 1.7... we'd still be 158% or so in overshoot. Considering you're talking about killing over 4 billion people, it hardly seems worth it."

"I'm not talking about killing anybody, but yes, that's my point exactly," said Tom. "Here's another suggestion though—instead of killing anybody, let's try taking the richest 20%, who do nearly 77% of the total consuming, and reducing their consumption by 60%, so they are only consuming at a level that equals about 31% of our current total consumption. This still leaves them doing more than their share of consuming, which they seem to think they are entitled to, even though the other 80% of the population are only doing 23% of the total consumption.

"I've done the calculation, and it brings us down to around 92% of carrying capacity. In other words, not in overshoot at all. That's what an eco-socialist, or a green anarchist like me, thinks we should ideally do. And then we should put a quite a bit of effort into rebuilding our damaged biosphere so as to increase its carrying capacity and give ourselves a comfortable margin to work with. Of course, the 'them' I'm talking about is actually 'us', and that makes it harder."

"I have to admit," said Allan, "that even though you are discussing carrying capacity and overshoot, you don't sound much like an eco-fascist. At least when you are given a chance to go into the details."

"Funny how that works, eh? But I agree, many people in the 'collapse sphere' do deserve to be called ecofascists," said Tom. "They make statements about needing to 'get rid of' a certain number of people to solve the overshoot problem. Then they start talking about how even poor people contribute to overconsumption and how we need to stop the developing world's population from growing so fast. Without even considering that consumption in the developed world is growing faster than population in the developing world. On top of all that, it's clear that these folks have no intention of doing anything about their own contributions to overconsumption or overpopulation."

"Yeah, and it's that kind of thing that gets me pissed off," said Allan.

"And so it should," said Tom. "But a moment ago you said 'if we're 170% into overshoot'. I take it you're questioning that number?"

"More the carrying capacity numbers that it is based on," replied Allan.

"Right," said Tom, "and you were saying something about the whole concept having been debunked?"

"Yes, exactly," said Allan. "As I understand it, carrying capacity is dependent on technology—with better tech the planet could support more of us. It's the T in your I=PAT equation."

"I'll get back to technology in a moment," said Tom, "but first there is an ideological issue that may be causing some confusion here."

"What's that?" asked Allan.

"Well, I've noticed that conventional leftist these days freak out whenever they hear anyone talking about limits," replied Tom. "As I was saying earlier, they think shortages are always fake and just created to keep prices up and profits flowing. I won't deny that does happen sometimes—the so called 'free market' is anything but. Anyway, they do allow as how we live on a finite planet and someday we may run into limits, but surely not yet. I think they are fooling themselves more than anybody else—we are clearly running into some real limits."

"You're really sure about that, are you?" asked Allan.

"Yes, I am," said Tom. "I've observed that among the general population there seems to be a lot of selective blindness and denial where this subject is concerned. As if there has always been enough and always will be, and that's the end of it. But the whole science of ecology doesn't agree. Carrying capacity has proven to be a very solid and useful concept. Sure, it isn't a fixed number—it's actually easiest to calculate afterwards, based on observations, and it varies from year to year responding to factors like rainfall, temperature and so forth. And you are right—it can change based on the sort of technology you are using, but whether technology makes things better or worse is a tossup. I'll give you some links to the organizations that are calculating carrying capacity and ecological footprint. See for yourself if they are full of shit or not."

"I guess I should do that," said Allan. "I do know that most 'conventional leftists', as you call us, think that only the top 1% or so need to reduce their consumption, and then we can increase the standard of living of the people at the bottom end to something more equitable."

"That's a laudable goal," agreed Tom. "Those folks have a lot of faith in technology actually increasing carrying capacity and/or reducing our impact. Look up 'eco-modernism' if you want a catch phrase to match your 'eco-fascism'".

"Those eco-modernist guys have some good ideas," said Allan. "Right now we are feeding well over eight and a half billion people and doing a better job of feeding the poorest among them than we were even a few years ago. That's mostly due to advances in technology, so I don't see why are you so against it?"

"That's easy," said Tom, "The modern agricultural technology you're talking about is hugely dependent on non-renewable resources. Every calorie that's produced uses up ten calories of fossil fuel energy in the process. Plus minerals like phosphorous and potash, among others. All of which are non-renewable and being used up faster every year."

"But renewable energy sources are growing exponentially," said Allan. "At least they were before the depression hit."

"You're right," said Tom, "but the amount of fossil fuels we're using has been growing as well. Remember when I first started talking about Peak Oil back in the late naughties? We were using about 85 million barrels a day back then. In 2028 we were using well over a 100 million, even with all the renewable energy sources we'd added. The depression has reduced energy use somewhat, but it has also reduced investment in renewables and discovery work for fossil fuels. The big oil companies are spending less every year on finding new resources and borrowing money to pay dividends to their stock holders. And it's been a long time since new discoveries exceeded consumption. Clearly this can't go on forever, even if the depression is giving us a bit of a breather.

"We've gone to the ends of the earth and surveyed essentially all the resources. New finds are getting rarer and smaller, and the quality of the resources being discovered is getting lower, taking more energy and fancier technology to access."

"We do have a lot of faith in technology, " said Allan, "I think it has a huge potential to fix our problems. I'm puzzled as to why you don't see that."

"Well, if you look at history over the last few hundred years, technological advances have always brought about increases in consumption, not decreases, by reducing the costs of goods and services and making them accessible to more people," said Tom. "We have a tendency to think of technology as something that creates energy. In fact, technology uses energy and raw materials, to a large extent non-renewal resources like fossil fuels and metals that can't be replaced. And it produces wastes that have to be dumped in sinks that are another finite resource. Like CO2 from burning fossil fuels accumulating in the the atmosphere and the oceans, causing climate change and ocean acidification. So on the surface it may look like it's helping, but in reality, not so much.

"The idea of decoupling, of developing technology that can maintain and grow our standard of living without having a negative effect on the environment, seems in reality to be nothing but a pipe dream. The T term in I=PAT always seems to be greater than one when you look at it closely. I think technology has an important role to play in our future, as you'll see here if things go as I'm planning. But we are going to have to be very careful not to use it in ways that make things worse."

"Technology saving our asses is a critical to my argument," said Allan, "and now you are telling me it's bullshit?"

"Sorry, but I am," replied Tom, "based on two things:

"one, so far we have achieved only a little bit of relative decoupling, that is, increasing consumption these days doesn't have quite the impact it once had, but we are a long way from absolute decoupling—from actually managing to increase our consumption while at the same time reducing our impact. And there's no clear path to get from here to there.

"And two, the current state of the world is not conducive to further technological development. Not right away, for sure. Currently the whole planet is mired in a pretty serious depression, there's no spare money for anything, and quite a few places are suffering civil unrest or outright war. Climate change is getting worse every year, new pandemics and new variants of the old ones keep popping up and sabotage of our energy infrastructure continues."

"OK, you got me there" said Allan. "I have to admit that, over the last couple of years, I have grown more pessimistic about revolutionary changes ever happening. Whether you're talking about social organization or technology. I had a lot of hope for nuclear fusion as an energy source that could save us, but now it seems like all the research projects are shut down due to lack of funds."

"Fusion would only have been a short term fix," said Tom, "solving the energy shortage only to run us up against other limits in the long run, and pushing us farther into overshoot in the process. Make energy cheap and the waste heat from our increased energy use would soon become a problem, along with shortages of material resources.

"Anyway, I reached the same conclusion about revolutionary change years ago. You really should read my series of blog posts that summarizes the book The Limits To Growth. Sure, the book was published in the early 1970s, and wasn't meant to be a prediction, but since then things have gone pretty much as they said they would if we didn't change from our 'business as usual' approach.

"As I've just said, we do need reduce our level of consumption, and the best way to do that would be to get rid of capitalism. This would significantly reduce the ridiculous overconsumption inherent in the lifestyles of the rich. It would also get rid of the production and consumption of unnecessary products and services needed to create profits so the rich can continue to accumulate wealth. This might not quite get us out of overshoot, but darn close. To get the rest of the way, we could eliminate some of the waste that's built into our system, and if all else fails, try practicing just a little bit of frugality.

"It's not going to happen, though... I expect that we'll continue right on as we are until collapse brings us to a grinding halt—reducing both population and consumption whether we like it or not—and by a lot more than is necessary just to get us out of overshoot. Some of the things causing collapse are consequences of overshoot—climate change in particular. Others are the inherent flaws in our capitalistic system finally catching up with us.

"All that talk with Jim about slow versus fast collapse," Tom said, shaking his head. "It'll happen at the speed it happens. Still, if we can mount some relief efforts, and help people adapt, I think we can slow collapse significantly and save a whole lot of lives. But if we let it get past a certain point, we'll no longer have the resources to do anything about it, and what follows will be a hard, fast collapse with very few survivors.

"Anyway, sorry for the rant. As you know, recently most of my efforts have been focused on adapting to the changes that are coming. Like setting up this place."

"I think I do follow your explanation," said Allan, "and since your focus isn't on eliminating poor brown people, I guess I can live with it. I do have a couple of questions that have been nagging at me for a while, though."

"OK, got for it," said Tom.

"The first thing is this," said Allan. "You been talking about reducing consumption and at the same time you been talking living well. I've been assuming both those things apply to the community you want us to build here, and it seems to me they are contradictory. What about that?"

"You're right in your assumptions," said Tom, "and on the face of it those two things are contradictory. But it seems to me that the capitalists have done everything they can to make sure a lot of our basic needs don't get fulfilled, while at the same time creating a bunch of artificial needs that they can profit from. So people feel they are missing something and spend a lot on consumer goods they've been told they need, but that don't really help. We are going to reduce that here, cutting off the endless marketing that we've all been exposed to, and at the same time doing a much better job of fulfilling our real needs. We should feel better while actually consuming less."

"OK, I think I see what you mean," said Allan, "and it may even work. It's a big change for us to make in how we live, though."

"Yes, it will be," said Tom. "I think you'll find it will be a positive change, though. Not having to worry about earning enough to pay the bills, having worthwhile work that clearly contributes to the community and free time to create our own entertainment and enjoy it with friends in that community, will make a huge difference."

"You know, I think it will," said Allan. "My other question is about sustainability. You haven't been using that word very much, but it is implied in much of what you're planning."

"Yes it is," said Tom, "and it's going to be harder than many of us probably think."

"Well, that's just what I was going to say," said Allan. "Even though we are going to be reducing our consumption, we'll still be dependent on a lot of non-renewable resources. What are you going to do when they run out?"

"Well, many can be replaced with renewable resources," said Tom. "Some quite easily and immediately, others not so much. We need to make those ones last as long as possible, giving ourselves time to find renewable alternatives, or ways of doing without."

"That does sum it up nicely," said Allan. "I just wanted to make sure you are aware of the problem and planning on addressing it. Sounds like you are."

"Oh yes," said Tom. "Those are both good questions. I am a little surprised, though, that you don't have reservations about the ethics of what we are planning to do here."

"How do you mean?" asked Allan.

"Well, we are setting up to live fairly well, while people suffer and die elsewhere," replied Tom

"You can't be expected to do the impossible," said Allan. "Under the conditions that are coming, the developing world, and for that matter, most of the developed world, might as well be on the moon. At least we won't be exploiting them or their resources anymore. And you're planning on significantly reducing our level of consumption, so we won't be taking more than our share locally—probably significantly less."

"That's true, but somehow it doesn't seem like enough," said Tom.

"OK, but didn't I hear you talking about helping pretty much everybody who shows up at our gate?"asked Allan. "And helping out the local communities as much as we can?"

"Sure, but..." said Tom.

"No buts," said Allan, "I think you've got that one covered, as ethically as needs be. But what's this nonsense you're talking about how we should organize this place?"

"What nonsense?" asked Tom.

"Well, based on the bits and pieces I've heard so far, I have to say I am not impressed," said Allan. "Leadership has got to be a pretty important part of any organization, and it seems that you want to do without it altogether. And you'd have us spend a huge part of our time in meetings, hashing out what we are going to do. But perhaps I should give you a chance to make yourself clear?"

"Once again, that would be nice," said Tom. "OK, first let's take a wide view and talk about how we ended up where we are today, organization wise."

"OK," said Allan.

"Earlier, I was talking about how our ancestors lived in egalitarian bands, and it worked very well for them," said Tom. "Nobody called me on it, but I said nothing about how that lifestyle originated. Our nearest primate relatives all live in bands dominated by a single alpha male, and it seems likely that we started out that way too. And stuck with it, up to a point."

"OK," said Allan, "what point was that?"

"Well," said Tom, "most of us have a built in resentment of being dominated. As our intelligence evolved we got to the point where we could imagine something better than putting up with a dominant bully, especially a bully who wasn't very good at his job. Our communication skills had also developed and we could share our thoughts on the matter with our fellows and make plans together to get rid of the bully. At first that might have been just to replace him with someone more agreeable, but if there were no volunteers we were left with the idea of treating everyone as equals and not having one dominant person. This worked so well that we stuck with it."

"But how did we get from there to where we are today, with hierarchies everywhere?" asked Allan.

"Well, eventually we started to live in larger groups," said Tom. "And they worked just fine, on the same egalitarian basis. But at some point, quite a while after that, a few people realized they could set up a hierarchy with themselves at the top and benefit hugely from opportunities this afforded for exploiting the rest of the population. They justified it by saying the larger group was difficult to manage and required a new, better kind of organization. By the time those at the bottom of the hierarchy realized they'd been had, those at the top had a firm grip on the situation. It was too late to do much about it—the rulers maintained a monopoly on force and violence. About all the common people could do, if they didn't want to go along with it, was to head for the hills. And many did.

"Today, we've all been fed propaganda about how hierarchies and leadership are necessary for efficient organizations, and many people accept that without question. But I think we can see that there are other ways of organizing groups, even large groups, other than feudalism or capitalism. Or feudal capitalism."

"And what specifically might those other ways be?" asked Allan.

"Well, I am an anarchist and an egalitarian," answered Tom, "and I believe strongly in direct democracy, based on consensus decision making. That all fits in well with the mutual aid, sharing and co-operation I was talking about earlier this afternoon."

"You know, Dad," said Allan, "you have a way of packing a whole lot of meaning into a few words. How about unpacking that a bit?"

"OK," Tom said with a wry expression on his face. "I guess that was a mess of buzz words that need further explanation. And some background on how I came to these ideas may be called for as well.

"Abraham Lincoln said that no man is good enough to govern another man without his consent. I would go further and say that no man is good enough to govern another man, period. I have worked for many bosses in large and small organizations, and none of them did a very good job of it. Sometimes that was partly the fault of the individual, but it was always the fault of the system as well. I have been a boss myself and I am no better.

"This isn't easy on the boss either—it's a stressful job. A good leader puts more into it, and it takes more out of him. When he finally packs it in, and he will, you are left with finding a replacement. Remember, I'm 75. Even if I am up to the job, and that's not certain, I've only got a few years left. I have no solution to any of this, except to change the system, and not put an individual in charge.

"To misquote David Graeber, one of my favourite anarchist scholars, 'To understand anarchy you must accept two things: one, that power corrupts and two, that we don't need power—under normal circumstances, people are as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be and can organize themselves and their communities without being told how. If we take the simple principles of common decency that we already believe we should live by, and follow them through to their logical conclusions, everything will turn out fine.'

"This means that everyone involved must be treated as equal—that's egalitarianism. And direct democracy is when everyone in the community takes part in the decision making process, and decisions are made by discussing things until a consensus is reached."

"Doesn't this take a lot more time than having a leader who the rest of us just follow?" asked Allan.

"It does, somewhat," replied Tom. "but it also results in better decisions, using of all those spare brain cells that would be sitting around unused if we had a single boss, and benefitting from the knowledge and experience of everyone in the group. And when we go to implement the decision, we'll be working together with people who are already convinced that it's the right thing to do. No disgruntled minority working against what's been decided.

"Understand, I am not saying that every last detail must be hashed out in a meeting of the whole group. As I was saying earlier, crews will implement in detail the general decisions of the whole group and deal with the specifics of our day to day operations."

"You really think we'll end up with a net gain using this type of organization?" asked Allan.

"I do," said Tom, "lots of people have used it and with good results. There's another Graeber quote that explains what reaching concensus is really about, 'Consensus isn't just about agreement. It's about changing things around: You get a proposal, you work something out, people foresee problems, you do creative synthesis. At the end of it, you come up with something that everyone thinks is okay. Most people like it, and nobody hates it.'"

"OK, sounds good. But what about leadership," asked Allan, "don't we still need it in some situations?"

"Well, by now, I guess it's obvious that I'm not keen on the very idea of leadership," answered Tom. "I think we should be fiercely proud of not having leaders here.

"But, yes, I'll allow as how there as some situations where it might be beneficial. During emergencies, we should all be prepared to step in and lead if we find ourselves at ground zero—put out the fire, so to speak—then relinquish authority when things are well enough under control for a crew or the collective as a whole to consult and decide what to do long term.

"And there may be room for some different sorts of leadership. The same people who came up with those ideas on group sizes also talk about leadership as hospitality rather than domination. I'm not sure exactly what that means in practice, but it might be worth looking into. On the whole, though, direct democracy should be our thing. The only question is whether we are ready to give it a try. Or more specifically, are you ready?"

"I am still doubtful," said Allan, "but yeah, I'll give it a chance."

"Good," said Tom. "As it happens we have an individual among us who is a trained facilitator, and has some experience in assisting groups with consensus decision making."

"Who's that?" asked Allan.

"Angie Ferguson," replied Tom. In response to Allan's raised eyebrow, he went on, "yeah, I know—she introduces herself as a hair stylist, but before she ran out of money and dropped out of school, she was studying political science. She also took some serious courses on facilitating, and did quite a bit of work as a facilitator. I should have gotten her to help from the start today. When we go back to the house, I will invite her to facilitate the rest of our meeting. Get things going on a better footing, I hope."

"OK, I have to admit I am pretty clueless about this approach," said Allan, "maybe we could arrange for some training?"

"An excellent idea," replied Tom. "And now on to another issue."

Tom turned back to the table and picked up a 13"X19" sheet of glossy paper on which was printed a graphic and some text.

The Porcupine Refuge Co-operative

"What you got there, Dad?" Allan asked.

"Just an idea for a sign to go over our gate, including a name for this place," replied Tom

"Well, we sure as heck need a name," said Allan, "calling it 'this place' is getting lame."

Tom handed him the sheet and he looked it over. "Porcupine Refuge Co-operative, eh?" Allan said, "I get the 'Refuge Co-operative' part, but what's the connection with porcupines, and what's the graphic? It almost looks like a cave painting."

"It is a cave painting," said Tom, "and while there are various theories about what it means, the one I like best is that the guy on the ground with all the arrows sticking out of him—kind of like a porcupine—is an alpha male who just wouldn't take the hint when the other people in the band suggested that he move on. You can see that the others are pretty thrilled about doing him in."

"And this is a reminder to any individual who tries to set themselves above the rest of us here at 'Porcupine'?" asked Allan.

"You got it in one!" Tom said with a smile. "What do you think?"

"Looks good to me," said Allan. "I hope we can reach a consensus on it, eh?"

"Yes indeed," said Tom, "I hope so too. If you and I are good, perhaps we should head back and see if there's any supper left."

"I'm good, and hungry," said Allan. "Lead on."

When they got back to the house, supper was just finishing up. Karen sat them down at one of the big tables in the dining room, in front of plates of spaghetti and meat sauce. "I hope you two have got whatever it was out of your systems," she said.

"Yep," said Tom, "we're feeling much better now. Would you mind asking Angie to join us?"

"Yes sir," Karen said with a mock salute and headed for the addition. She was back in a moment with Angie.

"Hi Angie," said Tom, "I probably should have had you facilitating this meeting from the get go. Allan and I are all sorted out now and we'd like you to take over and facilitate the rest of the meeting. I need to finished my thoughts on ecology and then go on to the next section.

"Well, if all you are going to do is stand there and talk, maybe take a few questions, there won't really be much facilitating to do, will there?" said Angie.

"I'll grant you that," said Tom. "Not at the start, anyway. But I'm going to end up talking about participatory, consensus decision making. After that I'll introduce you. And then I have a suggestion that will spark our first bit of group decision making."

"I guess that might work," said Angie with a frown. After a moment's thought, she switched to a smile, and added, "OK, let's do it. What's this first decision about?"

"An idea for a name and logo for this place," said Tom. "You take over, give me a chance to make my suggestion and then I'll get out of your hair."

"Somehow I doubt that," replied Angie, "but sure."

"OK, we'll just finish eating and then I'll continue where I left off before."

A few minutes later Allan and Tom entered the addition. Allan took his seat at the back next to Erika, and watched Tom continue to the front of the room and pick up his marker.

"He get you straightened out?" Erika whispered in Allan's ear.

"Yeah, that's pretty much what happened," replied Allan.

"I hope you'll excuse the interruption," said Tom, "at least it gave you a chance to have supper. Anyway, I think Allan and I have our differences sorted out now. And he helped me get my thoughts in order for the rest of this."

Tom went on, going over all of what he and Allan had discussed before supper and, in Allan's opinion, doing a better job of making his points than he had the first time through. There were a few questions, but Tom fielded them all with no trouble.

"So, those are my thoughts on how we should run this place," said Tom. "I know I was never officially appointed boss around here, just sort of fell into by virtue of having started things, but at this point I am officially stepping down. This leaves us without a leader and better off for it. But a central role in participatory decision making is that of the facilitator. A facilitator is not a leader or boss, but more of a referee. And we are fortunate to have among us someone who is a trained and experienced in that role. I think you all know or at least have met Angie Ferguson. Angie, why don't you come on up here and take over from me."

Angie came to the front. Tom handed her his marker and then took a seat beside Karen.

"Maybe take over isn't exactly the right word, since I'm not going to be running things either," said Angie with a wink directed at Tom. "But I take your meaning. We really need to arrange some introductory training in this style of decision making for all of you, and also get a few more people trained as facilitators so we can share that duty around and avoid me becoming another de facto boss. We obviously can't do that tonight though. What we can do is discuss an issue Tom wants to bring up. Back to you, Tom."

"Thanks Angie," said Tom, standing up, but pointedly not resuming his former position at the front of the room. "I think we've all noticed that it's getting pretty awkward not having a name to call 'this place'. So, I have a suggestion."

He'd rolled up the big printout and brought it with him, and now he unrolled it and held it up in front of his chest. "The Porcupine Refuge Co-operative is my suggestion, and it comes with a graphic that I think we should paint on a sheet of plywood and mount above our front gate."

"Where the heck does 'porcupine' come from, and how does it relate to that graphic," asked Erika, "or to what we are doing here?"

Tom was a little thrown by this, and hesitated long enough for Angie to step in, "Bet you thought this would be easy, didn't you Tom?" she said with a grin. "You've already explained this to Allan, right? Just share with us what you said to him."

"Allan made it pretty easy on me," said Tom, "easier than his better half is doing, anyway. So, the graphic is a cave painting..."

Coming soon, The Porcupine Saga Part 7, title still to be decided.

Links to the rest of this series of posts:
The Porcupine Saga

Thursday 12 October 2023

The Porcupine Saga, Part 5, One Last Lecture, Part 2

Allan Harper, late afternoon, Tuesday, April 9, 2030

Allan Harper checked the time on his phone and cancelled the alarm he had set. If his dad was serious about keeping to a 15 minute break, it was time to be getting back inside. He climbed the steps and went in through the back door of the old farm house, then down the hall to the addition.

"Allan, could you stick you head out the door and call people in?" asked Tom.

"Sure thing Dad," said Allan, turning around to retrace his path to the top of the steps where he called out in a voiced pitched to carry. "Break's over folks, time to come back in."

A few minutes later everyone had returned to their seats in the addition, many with cups or tall glasses of various beverages. Clearly Karen, Allan's mom, had been busy. And probably prepared ahead of time, if Allan knew her at all.

Allan also noticed that the youngest person in the group, the Janes' ten year old son, had been supplied with a stack of books and a box of toys. This lecture Tom was giving was probably pretty boring for the little guy, so it was good to have something to pass the time. Allan rather envied him.

Tom resumed his place at the white board. "Well, during the break I did some quick and dirty polling," he said, "and it seems that, despite having some questions, everyone is on side with my three basic points. That's reassuring" He gestured at the white board where he had listed those points.

Allan noticed that no one objected—it seemed his father had it right.

"I'm beginning to get a better idea of how my presentation today should go, which is good since I'm already about a third of the way through it," said Tom. The audience laughed politely at this bit of self-deprecation and he smiled in response."I can see it's going to fall into three parts. Before the break we talked about how collapse is real, that we can adapt to it, and that the best adaptation is based on community self sufficiency. This second section is going to be mainly about economics and ecology—how this self-sufficient community is going to work. The third section, after supper, we'll talk about specifics of organization and governance—other things we'll have to provide for ourselves."

"So, how is our community going to work?" asked Tom and paused for effect.

"We are now in the midst of a serious economic depression. Capitalism, which we have relied on to provide us with the necessities of life, is failing, and nothing has been organized as yet to replace it. Many of us have found ourselves in a tough spot and we've come here seeking refuge from the storm that has gripped our world.

"But we are creatures of habit and if we don't watch out, we're likely to set things up in the same old way that isn't working, without even realizing that's what we are doing. Before the break I talked about how our community will be egalitarian and based on the principles of primitive communism. I think I neglected to mention that we'll use direct democracy to govern ourselves, possibly because I'll cover it in the third section. But it is another basic element of what I hope we can do here.

"I think these three elements constitute a really strong foundation for our new community. They imply a lot about how that community will function, and by following those implications we can avoid falling into the same old pitfalls. So, I have some ideas about how this should go. As before, I've discussed most of this with at least some of you, in bit and pieces, and now I'll try to bring it all together in one piece, for the whole group."

Tom paused to write on the white board: "Refuge from Capitalistic Society—must be a non-capitalistic society".

"OK, I'm going to start in what may seem like a strange place," said Tom. "And that is with the size of groups we'll be living and working in. The possibilities we will be looking at are: individuals, dyads (two people), crews (three to five people), communes (15 to 150 people) and networks of communes.

"The society we are leaving has pretty much settled on the individual as the only unit of organization when it comes to people. In many ways, the large hierarchical organizations that those individuals work in aren't really human at all. So that's it, just individuals. They're easier to dominate and manipulate, so today's corporations and governments discourage the other sizes of groups. Even dyads, long the basis for fruitful partnerships of many types, are suffering in that society.

"Those other sizes of group have some big advantages and by not using them, conventional society is missing out on a lot of opportunities, of which we will take full advantage. Our basic organizational unit will be the commune, a grouping that is almost completely absent in our society. It brings together enough people to make self-sufficiency possible and to constitute a functioning community. And it allows those people to form the dyads and crews we'll need to accomplish things individuals can't on their own.

"A commune is large enough so that it can be a little cumbersome, so much of the action within our commune will be accomplished by crews. A crew is big enough to make a major contribution but small enough to so it's members can all be on the same page without using any sort of formal organization. Some of our crews will be doing actual physical jobs, others will be assigned to devise answers to questions that would take the whole group forever to discuss.

"The pair bond is evolved right into human beings, so dyads are also a very effective size of group, and sufficient for many jobs. The idea of partnership is basic to dyads, and we'll extend it to the larger groups as well. Sadly we are used to basing relations on dominance and submission. This is a major source of injustice and something we will want to avoid.

"Someday, years down the road, we can hope that others will adopt our approach and we can have a network of communes similar to ours."

Tom turned to the white board and wrote, "Organizational units: the commune, the crew, the dyad and the individual. Someday, a network of communes".

As a tradesman, Allan had done some work in crews and knew how effective they could be, even in a capitalistic organization. Communes were a new thing for him, though he had to admit that this particular one seemed to be working OK, so far.

"I would have thought extended families would have an import role to play here," said Jim MacGregor, "but you haven't even mentioned them at all."

"I have nothing against extended families," said Tom, "clearly, since I have both children and grandchildren in this room. They say it takes a village to raise a child and a commune can play that role. But I didn't mention extended families because capitalism uses families, be they nuclear or extended, to do the reproductive labour required to maintain society without any support from the capitalists. Even though they clearly benefit from that labour, they have externalized it from their own organizations and left the burden sitting squarely on the family.

"This is actually a pretty good example of one of those habits we want to avoid. We'll want to strongly support those who bear, raise and educate our children. And how we do this may end up look quite different from the traditional family. It will be interesting to see what develops."

"Oh," said Jim, "I guess I am an old fashioned guy and I hadn't thought of it that way. But I do see what you mean."

"Great," said Tom. "we all have some work ahead of us when it comes to following those implications I was talking about.

"Anyway, next we need to look at economics. We're used to spending our time working for capitalists, producing commodities or services. Even those of us who are self-employed end up working for the capitalists at the bank. So, they sell those commodities and services, and use some of the money they receive to pay us for our labour, at the lowest rate they can get away with. The rest they keep, to re-invest in their businesses or in other areas for the best return they can manage, always aiming to accumulate more wealth. Having 'enough' simply doesn't enter into it

"Because we've had a consumer economy, if wealth is to be accumulated goods and services must be produced and consumed, regardless of whether they are actually needed or not. Indeed a lot of effort is expended to create artificial demand for whatever the capitalists are set up to produce. This is known as "supply push". And it, along with the endless accumulation of wealth by capitalists, results in our impact on the planet being much heavier than it really needs to be.

"Here we have a different goal, and we will be adopting a very different approach," said Tom. "That goal is surviving, and surviving well. Our labour will be used to supply our needs—water, food, clothing, housing. Once those are taken care of, we'll see to other needs that are less urgent, but still very real. I would encourage us not to fuss much over the gray areas—if we decide to put our time and effort into a thing, we should call it a need. We'll make things (and services) because we need them—this is known as "demand pull", and it has the potential to put us in a situation of abundance that has a much smaller impact on the planet than a supply push economy—we'll only make what we need, and don't have to support the continuous drain of wealth accumulation by capitalists."

"But exactly how would such a demand pull economy work?" asked Tom. "Remember that we want to base it on communistic rather than capitalistic ideals.

"I'll start with ownership and property. Ownership is one of those artificial concepts that has become central to our society. But there is nothing fundamentally real about the concept of owning things. It is one of the fictions that is accepted by everyone as necessary to making society work. What it actually does is make things work for the 1% at the top. In fact, you own the things you can hold onto. Our laws, courts and the police exist largely to help the rich hold onto what they think of as their own. Some benefit does slop over into the middle and lower classes, but if you've ever had something stolen and called the police, you've seen how small that benefit really is."

"I didn't bring much with me, Grandpa," said Tom's step-granddaughter Andrea, "but aren't some of the people here going to be pretty upset if you take away all their stuff?"

"Not so far, Andrea. But then I'm not actually taking away all their stuff," answered Tom. "Let me explain. Property comes in three varieties: personal, private and collective. Personal property includes, at the very least, things like your clothes, shoes, toothbrush and nostalgic items like family photos and keepsakes. You came here with it and you get to keep it. I suspect we'll also come up with a list of personal necessities that we'll supply for everyone, as some people are going to arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs.

"But, in the society we have left behind, a typical household has a lot of stuff that I guess you'd consider personal property. Take the kitchen for example—each household has a whole bunch of appliances, equipment, cutlery, china and so forth. We're going to have one central kitchen that looks after everybody and eliminates a whole lot of duplication of personal property. Another example would be guys like me having a well outfitted shop with a bunch of power tools that get used pretty rarely. We're going to have a 'maker space' and a tool library which eliminates a lot of duplication in those areas."

"There is a somewhat fuzzy line between personal and private property, and no doubt we'll spend some time over the next few months discussing exactly where that line should fall. One of the definitions of private property is that you use it to increase your private wealth. Of course, as a member of our commune, you don't have private wealth, so you don't need private property.

"The third type of property—collective property—belongs to us all," said Tom, " and much of the property that we are 'taking away' falls into this category. You won't be losing it, just sharing it."

"Ask anybody here," said Andrea, "we can all tell stories about common property that get's abused, broken, stolen and so forth."

"I know what you mean," replied Tom. "I've seen those things happen too—in an organization I was in charge of, actually. Close examination has lead me to believe that the people involved didn't really feel any responsability for the stuff in question or expect any consequences when they abused it. Here, the common stuff belongs to us all and that means it belong to you. If it gets broken or lost, the replacement comes out of a common pool of resources. Resources that could have been used for something else that you wanted instead.

"On the other hand, it's important to remember that, in the normal course of events, things do break and get lost and not to get too worked up about it."

"Yeah, you got some good points there, Grandpa," said Andrea.

"Thanks, Andrea," said Tom. "The next thing is work and money. In the world we are leaving you work to get money so you can buy the necessities of life, but with no guarantee that what you earn will be enough. This doesn't apply here, as the commune provides those necessities. Still, we are all going to do some work as part of our lives here. At a minimum, this will be the work that's needed to provide for all of us.

"I am not proposing that we get paid for this or any other work we do here," said Tom. "Indeed I am quite certain that we don't need to use money internally at all. This place will work just fine without it. And I am not suggesting we replace money with some sort of barter system or even a time keeping system. I don't believe that we need to formally keep track of how much each of us does—indeed we'll be better off if we don't. We should switch from extrinsic rewards like wages to intrinsic rewards like knowing that you are helping the members of your community and doing a good job of it.

"For most of our history (or perhaps I should say prehistory) barter and trading (commerce, if you will) were something you did only with strangers and usually with an eye to, as my dad used to say, 'putting one over one them'. When dealing with the members of your own community, you simply shared and did what was needed to make sure everyone had enough.

"In one sense, money is just a set of tokens used to keep score in the complex game that is our economy. Energy is what really makes an economy work, and we'll have our own renewable sources of energy here, mainly firewood. So money in this sense won't be very important to us.

"But in another sense, money is used by the rich to make more money, and control everyone else. In the society we are leaving, money severely limits our options because there is so little we can do without it, and borrowing has become the only way to get enough money to do anything significant. Because it is created via debt and must be paid back with interest, money drives the continual growth of the economy. Having abandoned money we will have eliminated the need for on-going growth and once again reduced our impact on the planet.

"I believe we will find this approach involves less effort to secure the necessities of life. Less than the regular jobs we've been working at, for sure. I think we'll also find it will take less energy and fewer material resources. And it should be much less of a pain in the ass, since we'll be working as part of a partnership we've voluntarily agreed to, rather because some idiot above us in a hierarchy tells us to."

On the board Tom wrote, "Eliminate money, accounting, banking, debt, and the need for growth." On the next line he wrote, "Personal, Private and collective property." And then stroked out "private".

As a union member, and in his most recent job a union organizer, Allan had developed a pretty strong class consciousness, so he had no problem with this kind of talk. Others weren't so quick to accept.

"That doesn't sound fair," said Nora McGregor, a slim, gray haired women wearing glasses, who was, if Allan remembered correctly, a retired elementary school teacher, "if the most competent people give their all, they'll end up contributing a lot more than lazier or less capable people."

"Fair is only in fairy tales," replied Tom with a grin, which drew a frown from Nora. "But seriously, it is true that some will do more for the community than others. Hell, some of us could probably make a go of it as an isolated individual or family, without the need for a community. But it would be really hard. As members of this community, those exceptional people will have a much easier go of it than they otherwise would. They will be significantly ahead of where they'd be without the community.

"Indeed, none of us should have to go full out on an ongoing basis, or this isn't going to work. Without capitalistic waste, and with the force multiplier of mutual aid, we should all have some time for the things we love to do, and even to be a little lazy. Laziness should not be discouraged when there isn't much to do, and we will set things up so there are times when there isn't much to do, as we have no need to over produce or over consume.

"That's how it worked for the most competent people in those egalitarian bands. They did contribute more, and were expected to share with others who contributed less. If they got uppity about it, they were made fun of, slapped down, and in extreme cases encouraged to go elsewhere."

"The more you say, the worse it sounds to me," said Nora.

"Look, we've all been taught to accept this odd idea of fairness—that if we work hard we'll be compensated fairly, and if we don't, we haven't earned any reward," said Tom. "This is intended to keep our noses to the grindstone, but the only people who really benefit are the capitalists who are exploiting us. It is not fair at all and it totally ignores some of our basic human rights—I mean, what are the people who haven't managed to earn a reward, frequently through no fault of their own, supposed to do?

"We are so immersed in ableism and meritocracy that working to help our community, even if some of its members haven't 'earned' it, sounds backwards to us. But I'll tell you it is the most forward thing you'll ever find. Who would you rather help? Your family, friends and neighbours who genuinely need your help, and most of whom help you as much as they can, or rich people who just want to get richer and don't give a damn about you?"

"When you put it that way," replied Nora, "maybe it's worth a try. We'll see how it goes, anyway."

"Indeed we will," said Tom, and turned to write, "Eliminate ableism and meritocracy. Guarantee basic human rights"

"If my analysis is right, you'll find that on average you'll be working something like 32 hours a week," said Tom. "About half of that will be on 'shit jobs'—work that needs to be done whether you like it or not. You'll do it because you recognize that it does need to be done and if not by you, then who? The other half of will be spent doing what you want to do to help the community. Of course, there will be lumps in the work load, busy times when everyone is working long hard days, and slack times with the opportunity to take it easy.

"Fortunately the forces of capitalism have been sufficiently weakened by the depression that we are going to be able to try all this out without the opposition you would usually expect, and without enacting any formal land reforms," said Tom. "Provided we keep a low profile, and don't stir up trouble the local government or the police, that is.

"Since the start of the depression in the fall of 2028, the offshore capitalists that technically owned this land have disappeared. They are not answering their phones and have stopped paying their taxes and stopped renting the land out to local farmers for cash cropping. The depression has hurt many of those farmers, leaving them in no position to plant a crop, even if they were inclined to do so without a formal rental agreement, so we don't have much competition for use of the land hereabouts. The hundred acres we're sitting on was for sale for back taxes. Of the other nine hundred acres in this concession, seven hundred are in circumstances similar to this farm and two hundred are owned by a farmer who is my age and I suspect would like to retire. We should approach him soon.

"As the depression deepens and governments at all levels lose more and more of their ability to project force and control the situation, we may well be able to just squat on much of this land without paying taxes—making good use of it, rather than letting it just be taken over by thorn brush. And hopefully using what we produce on the land to help those less fortunate in the local community.

"It's a bit of a wild ass guess, but I've been basing my thinking on needing around five acres to support each person," said Tom. "You hear people talking about needing as little as a quarter of an acre, but that is for a vegetable garden only. I'm including producing firewood, building materials, fiber, vegetable oil and alcohol as fuel, as well as food. Add in some scrap metal and we should be pretty much self-sufficient. Of course, this year, until the first harvest starts to come in, we'll continue to buy food and other necessities. And initially we'll have to spend some money on tools, equipment, seeds, nursery stock and livestock."

On the board Tom wrote, "Informal Land Reform, facilitating Self-Sufficiency"

Working five acres of land sounded to Allan like something that might take more than 32 hours per week to work. He was about to speak up when his step-son Miles beat him to it.

"Grandpa Tom ," said Miles, "how do you figure 32 hours a week is going to be enough to take care of five acres of land?"

"Because more than half of that five acres is going to be in woodlot, supplying us with building materials and firewood," said Tom, "of the rest, some is going to be in orchards, field crops, pasture and hay, which we'll work mainly using machinery, driven by tractors or work horses. So this brings us back to about a quarter of an acre of vegetable garden, and even there much of the work can be with machinery."

"Oh," said Miles, " I thought you meant five acres of garden—twenty times as much as that quarter acre. But even a quarter acre is a square a little over a hundred feet on a side. That's still a pretty big garden."

"I won't argue with you there, Miles," said Tom. "It's never been clear to me whether that's supposed to be a quarter acre per person or per family. I grew up on a farm, and we had about a third of an acre of garden, where we grew most of the vegetables for a family of five. So a quarter of an acres is probably a generous estimate. Still, there will be times—planting, weeding, harvest—when some long days will be required of many of us. But averaged over the year, gardening doesn't add up to anywhere near 32 hours a week, so we'll have lots of time for all the other things that need doing."

Miles let it go at that, but a short and curvy young woman spoke up, "So as you say, at the start, we'll be buying more than we produce. Where are we going to get all the money for that?"

Alan thought for a moment and remembered being introduced to her as Angie Ferguson, a hair stylist.

"Money raises its ugly head again... well, I guess I may not have explained this to everyone yet," said Tom, "I expect that the majority of people seeking refuge here will come with little more than they can carry—personal property only and little or no financial resources of any sort. That is the point of having a refuge, after all. But the older folks in this room did come with somewhat more— savings, investments, and pensions—the usual government pensions for those who are over 65, and in a couple of cases, company pensions earned during our working days. These are private property and have already been signed over to our collective.

"So, with those resources, it looks like we've got enough income to keep us all fed and otherwise cared for until the crops start coming in. Also to buy what we'll need in the way of seeds, tools and so forth, and to pay the property taxes on this farm. Some of us have brought part of what's needed with us, and that will save us quite a bit of money."

"Good for you. And good of you older folks to be so generous," said Angie.

"Well, I have to admit we are not altogether altruistic in this," said Tom. "Realistically, if the depression continues as we expect it will, we're looking at those pensions getting discounted soon and eventually disappearing altogether. Our investments won't be reliable either. So we wanted to 'use them before we lose them', so to speak—to create something that we can count to support us as we get older, even if our civilization collapses."

"And in the setup you've been describing, us younger folks will provide that support," said Angie. "Not a bad deal either, since none of us have the resources to set up a place like this on our own, and there will be only a few of you and lots of us."

"I'm glad to hear you feel that way," Tom replied. "though I'm not keen on us being divided into 'you and us'."

"Just a figure of speech," said Angie.

Allan hoped it was. He could see real problems arising if a rift developed between those who had bank rolled the operation and those who ended up doing most of the work. It didn't need to turn out that way, but it easily could.

"Do you think we'll ever be able to make everything we need?" asked a muscular man in who appeared to be in his thirties.

He'd been introduced to Allan as Don McPherson, a fitter mechanic who did blacksmithing and foundry work as a hobby. Clearly a useful fellow to have, and with a keen interest in "making".

"That's mostly a matter of how you define need, " replied Tom, "and how much in the way of money, material resources and effort we're willing to put into any particular thing. At least here we'll have a much better idea of the real cost of things than we did as part of consumer society. Very soon we should start working on a wish list. This, I am sure, will spark much discussion about what we can produce here and what we really need. Some things may always be beyond our reach—solid state electronics and the high end of pharmaceutical and medical tech come to mind."

"I'd agree with you there," Don said, "and I'd add in plastics and rubber, and possibly electricity itself. But maybe that's because those things are outside my 'wheelhouse', so to speak."

Allan, an electrician himself, wondered if he should speak up, but Tom beat him to it. "As an electrician, I can tell you that electricity really isn't that hard. The hard part is providing energy for the prime mover that spins a generator. Even without solid state electronics, we can use wind, solar thermal and of course, firewood. This may not get us the essentially infinite amounts of power that we're used to, but enough for the basics. Electricity is so useful, especially for things like pumping water, refrigeration, lighting and operating power tools, that I have no doubts we'll find a way to generate some. NOt just today, but in the future when all our store bought generators have broken down and we have to build our own."

"Oh, for sure," said Don. "Our current level of technology looks like magic to many people, and it is supported by a global network of such complexity that it might fall apart if any one link fails. But there are suites of technologies that require much smaller and simpler networks. With already existing tools and knowledge, and the extensive opportunities for salvage that currently present themselves, we are in a much better position than those who developed those technologies in the first place."

"Absolutely, Don," agreed Tom, "and the rest of us will be relying on folks like you to make such ideas a reality. Especially since that global network seems ready to collapse at any moment. Thinking about that sort of thing, it's going to be interesting to see how long our governments can continue funding it's new dental and pharma plans, as well as the medical system, and how long much of the technology involved will be available. At some point we're going to have to start doing that sort of thing for ourselves, and it will be a big challenge, especially since most alternative medicine simply doesn't work. In any case, I hope we will be able to attract mlore pharmaceutical and medical people in the near future.

"It might surprise you to know that we already have among us a person who has worked in the biotech industry—my daughter-in-law Erika. She has brought with her a couple of strains of gene tailored bacteria. One produces insulin. I don't think we have anyone at the moment who is insulin dependent, but it's bound to happen as we welcome in more people. The other produces chymosin, an enzyme used in cheese making. She has connections in the field and intends to obtain more cultures for some of the things we couldn't make otherwise. We don't have the tech to engineer these bacteria ourselves, but we can certainly make use of them once we have them."

Allan turned to Erika and said in a low voice, "That's a lot on your shoulders."

"They're broad ones, my dear," she said, "and a good thing, 'cause as he says, there's more yet to be done."

Tom paused for a moment, looking around the room. "I see no one is raising objections to genetically modified organisms, or to my comment about alternative medicine" he said, "it's a big relief to see that that sort of irrationalism hasn't thus far taken root here. As far as solid state technology goes, well, that's a big reach. But lighting is something I don't think we'll want to give up and the efficiency of LEDs argues for putting some effort into producing them, or at least something of similar efficiency. In the meantime, we'll stock up on useful things like that, and it will be quite a few years before the last of the existing LED bulbs gives out on us."

"Anyway, having mentioned five acres per person I think it is time to bring up another concept—that of carrying capacity, and with it the idea of overshoot," said Tom.

"This may be less familiar territory for typical western leftists, who have a tendency to confuse the real physical limits of the planet we are living on with artificial shortages, created by capitalists to keep prices up. The assumption is that if you're talking about limits, you're actually trying to sneak artificial shortages in under cover. We've been told that if we get rid of capitalism and redistribute the wealth more justly, there will be enough to go around for everyone. And if there are real limits, we're nowhere near them yet.

"I think this is pretty unlikely. The best estimates I've read have us already 170% into overshoot. That is, we are consuming 70% more than the biosphere can produce each year, and in the process damaging the biosphere and reducing its carrying capacity. We are also using up non-renewable resources like crazy, without any plan for what to do when they get depleted.

"Carrying capacity is one of those real limits, and in this context, it is simply how many of us a certain area of land can support on an ongoing basis—sustainably, as they say. Of course, this depends on the piece of land—how much it has to give. And on how we choose to live—how much we take from that land. The single most important thing to understand is that in the short term we can take more from the land than is implied by its carrying capacity, like withdrawing the principle of an investment, rather than just living off the interest. When we do so, we degrade the land and actually reduce its carrying capacity. Overshoot is the term used to describe this situation. In the long term overshoot leads to ecological collapse.

"As I said, currently, for the planet as a whole, the human race is in overshoot by about 170%. That's pretty scary, but by being aware of it, and exercising care to stay within the carrying capacity of this chunk of land, I think we can have a decent life here and be generous to the community around us."

On the board, Tom wrote: "Carrying Capacity, Overshoot and Resource Depletion"

At this point Allan had had all he could take. "Just stop right there, Dad," he said, "there's a name for what you are talking about—Eco-Fascism. It's what rich people on the right use to justify austerity and population control or outright genocide for poor countries who they think have too many people. Anyway, carrying capacity is a thoroughly debunked concept. With better technology, the land can support more people. From the sound of this I don't think you're a leftist at all—just a crypto-fascist."

Tom was silent for a moment, his face flushed. "First, you want me to run this place, now you call me a fascist," he said. He paused for another moment, shaking his head, then said, "I am out of here."

He set down his marker on the ledge at the bottom of the white board and stalked out of the room. A moment later, the outside door closed with a bang.

Looking around the room, Allan could see shocked expressions on many faces, though for a start, no one had anything to say.

Then Karen, Allan's mother and Tom's wife, who had been quiet throughout, stood up. "Well, Allan, you caused this problem—I suggest you fix it. Give your dad some time to calm down, and then go find him, apologize and let him explain what he's talking about. See if you can get him to come back. I think you'll find him in the first pole barn. In the meantime, we should get supper on. Anybody want to help?"

Then she left, heading for the kitchen, followed by the handful of people who had been helping with meals for the last few weeks. A buzz of quiet discussion rose throughout the room.

Allan didn't know what to say. Erika looked at him with a quizzical expression on her face. "What the hell was that about?"

"Just the latest episode of a long standing argument," said Allan with a sigh.

"Yeah, well I don't usually like it when your mother gives you orders," Erika said. "But I think you really fucked up this time, and you'd better try what she suggests."

"Oh, I'm gonna," replied Allan. "I just hope I can talk some sense into him."

"Or maybe he can talk some into you," said Erika. "I'm off to the kitchen."

Allan nodded but said nothing more, just sat there with a thoughtful look on his face. It was almost half an hour later when he got up and headed outside to look for his dad.

Coming soon, The Porcupine Saga, Part 6: The Sign Above Our Gate

The ideas about group sizes and their functions comes from the Microsoldiarity website. Lots of good ideas there, about how to foster belonging in groups and partnership rather than domination/submission, as well as the group sizes thing.

Links to the rest of this series of posts:
The Porcupine Saga

Sunday 24 September 2023

The Porcupine Saga, Part 4, One Last Lecture, Part 1

Allan Harper, early afternoon, Tuesday, April 9, 2030

From his seat at the back Allan Harper looked around the big room where they all sat. By his count there were twenty of them now, himself included. Seated on an assortment of couches and chairs they pretty well filled up the addition to the old farm house. He and his dad, Tom Harper, had spent the last six weeks tracking these people down and moving them here, to the back end of Inverpen Township. Now Tom had called them all together.

Allan didn't like meetings, having sat through too many pointless ones at work, but he couldn't see any way out of this one, short of setting fire to the house. That would be pretty counterproductive, though, and would probably only serve to delay the meeting anyway. So he resigned himself to sitting through it, doubting that anything useful or important would come of it.

Tom stood at the far end of the room, in front of a big white board with an erasable marker in his hand.

"For the last few weeks there have been few enough of us that we've just made decisions by talking things over after supper every night," said Tom. "Two problems with that. First, we've added five more people today and more are coming. Soon there will be too many of us for such an informal arrangement. Even now, we can't all sit around one table. We need to formalize our decision making a bit. And two, you folks have been letting me just go ahead and run things. You really don't want to do that in the long run."

This struck Allan as his dad being dumb in an all too familiar way. Allan had no doubt that Tom would try to steer the group towards the sort of consensus decision making process that they had often argued about. He just had to speak up. "Why not Dad?" he asked."We need a leader and you seem to know what you are doing, you've got a plan for where we're going with this. If you get too far out of line, don't worry, we'll let you know."

Most of the people in the room nodded their heads and murmured in agreement. But Allan knew his dad wouldn't go along with it.

"We'll get back to that before I'm done here—it's part of what I want to talk about. And Allan, I know you won't let me forget," replied Tom, "But before I do quit running things—and I guarantee I will—there are a few things I want to say."

Allan shook his head and frowned, but decided to hold off from saying anything more for the moment.

"I haven't made any sort of a secret of what I hope we can do here, but I've mostly talked about it in bits and pieces, and to individuals or couples rather than the whole group. I think I should run through the whole idea from top to bottom in one go, in front of you all at once, just so everyone is on the same page," Tom said. "Hmmm... now that I am faced with the task, I can see why I have been doing it in bits and pieces. Bear with me—it's a little hard to know where to start when trying to sum it all up in one go."

He paused for a moment, drew in a noisy breath, exhaled and then went on, "OK, maybe this will do it. There are three basic things that are behind us all being assembled here today. I sure hope that I've already made those things clear to everyone, but just in case, I guess I should go over them again. If something isn't clear, or you think I'm leaving something out, speak up."

Allan could tell his father thought this would be quick and easy. It seemed likely that he was in for a surprise.

Tom paused for a moment, taking in his audience, then continued, "So, three things."

"One, the collapse of our capitalistic industrial civilization."

"We rely on capitalism to provide us with the necessities of life, and jobs to earn the money it takes to buy them, and it is gradually failing to do either. We are seeing this first in the form of rising unemployment, lower paying and more precarious jobs, and poorer working conditions. And second, in rising prices, supply chain failures and a general decrease in the quality and variety of goods that are available, when and if they are available. Or to put it another way, we are experiencing collapse mainly as an increasing level of poverty, as the number of poor people increases and their level of poverty deepens, while the cost of living goes up. I expect all this will continue to get worse, to the point where a great many people will fall out of the bottom of our system and find themselves homeless and hungry. As many of you know personally, that has already started. Pandemics, climate change and the ongoing effort to sabotage our energy infrastructure are all contributing to the situation as well."

He turned to the white board and wrote, "1. Collapse is happening".

As he turned back to his audience, he said, "Moving on to point two—".

"Hang on a minute there Tom, how can you be sure that this mess isn't going to straighten itself out?" asked Terry MacKenzie. Alan knew him as a retired dental hygienist and amateur potter—a nice old guy who Alan quite liked.

"If you mean 'sure' in an absolute sense, Terry," answered Tom, "then of course I am not that sure. But I am pretty damned sure."

"But the economy has been in trouble before," said Terry, "and it has always recovered."

"Actually, that's part of why I am so sure," said Tom. "I don't believe what's wrong at the moment is a matter of the economy being just temporarily out of whack.

"Capitalism is inherently a cannibalistic system—it eats up the very things it relies on for its continued operation. Over the last few hundred years it has gone from crisis to crisis, running up against one set of limits after another and always finding ways around them. Some people think that this can go on forever. I don't agree.

"These days capitalism has pretty much taken over the whole world, depleted natural resources to the point where they can no longer be exploited profitably, depleted human resources to the point where families and society are breaking down and depleted political resources to the point where governments are having difficulty maintaining the systems that makes capitalism itself possible. It seems that capitalism—'business as usual'—has nowhere left to turn. It has finally hit the wall."

"But surely there is some way to reform capitalism so that can get it back on track," said Mark MacKenzie, Terry's husband, a retired lawyer, an avid gardener and a banjo player who was part of the bluegrass group Alan was putting together.

"Well," said Tom, "the present problems are the result of faults that are inherent to the system. The social democracies of the late twentieth century tried to regulate the excesses of capitalism, and they succeeded to some extent, but not completely. And now they have pretty much all been replaced by populist right wing governments who are controlled by the capitalists, who don't want to be regulated or reformed. So, I don't have much hope for that as an overall solution. On the other hand some communities, like the one we are trying to set up here, may manage to reorganize themselves in revolutionary ways so as to get away from the problems of capitalism."

So far, the questions were the kind that Tom was used to fielding, and while it was clear that Terry had surprised him, it didn't look to Allan like it was really bothering him.

"Tom, I have no trouble with the idea that collapse is going to happen," said Jim MacGregor, a retired machinist who had arrived a week before with a pretty complete machine shop stowed in a trailer behind his pickup truck. "And from your blog I know you think it is going to happen slowly. But why slow? I would have thought that once collapse gets started, it will go hard and fast."

"Jim, I've tossed that one back and forth with many other bloggers and kollapsnik friends over the last decade or two ," replied Tom, "and to a large extent it depends on what you means by slow and fast. Days, weeks, months, years, decades? I believe we started collapsing almost 60 years ago, with the energy shocks caused by OPEC in the earlier 1970s. And I'd say we've got another decade or two at least before the process is complete. I've met people who call that a fast collapse and others that think it's really slow."

"Christ," said Jim, "if that isn't slow, I don't know what would be."

"Still, it's only 7 or 8 decades," said Tom. "Rome took several hundred years to collapse and it was a much smaller entity than our current global civilization. Define the speed of collapse as you will, but there are three things I've observed that are beyond doubt:

"One, collapse proceeds unevenly in a geographical sense. Things fall apart in one area while continuing along as usual in others.

"Two, it proceeds unsteadily in a chronological sense. Things decline quickly for a short period of time, then stay the same or even improve somewhat for a long time after that.

"And three, collapse proceeds unequally in the social or 'class' sense, usually hurting the middle and lower classes far more than the one percent at the top.

"All this makes it hard to see that collapse is really happening and it leads people to put off preparing for it, leaving them even more susceptible to it when it happens to them.

"But speaking in an overall sense, things really do go slower than you might expect. Shaky as our society is, it has a lot of momentum and a big majority of people who are trying to keep it going, with a lot of resources devoted to the job. So when things start to decline rapidly, measures are taken to stop it. Even if they don't succeed and there is a local collapse, things tend to get put back together, at least to some extent.

"And so far, collapse has been confined to small enough areas that help has always been available from outside. Or sometimes, when we in the developed countries don't really care much about the affected area, we just conveniently forget about it. The news cycle is short and it moves on. Ask people in New Orleans or Syria."

Unlike his father (and Jim, evidently) Allan wasn't any sort of "kollapsnik", but he did have a lot of personal experience with the decline his Dad was talking about, and while he wasn't sure about Tom's ideology, pragmatically speaking he was ready to go where Tom lead, especially if the food was good and there was a warm place to sleep.

"What do you think about the sabotage that's been going on the last couple of years?" asked Jim.

"I sympathize with the people who are doing it, whoever they are," said Tom. "We're doing nothing about climate change and other insults to the biosphere. We're making no attempt to conserve non-renewable resources. These folks are frustrated by the lack of action. But we have a great deal invested in fossil fuel infrastructure, much of which needs to be abandoned, and it isn't going to be abandoned as long as it's making money for the people who own it. It would be much easier to abandon if it was in a mess, and making that mess is clearly the aim of the saboteurs.

"This is definitely making things decline faster, and the current depression is part of that. Some would argue that a fast collapse is preferable since it quickly gets rid of the old institutions that are holding us back, and it would bring to a halt the damage that is being done to the biosphere and the remaining stocks of non-renewable resources.

"On the other hand, a slow collapse would kill at lot fewer people since it gives us more time to clue in and start adapting—to develop and implement strategies while the resources supplied by civilization are still available. So, personally, I'd prefer not to speed collapse up any further—coping with it a the current rate is going to be challenging enough."

"I suspect that without that sabotage we wouldn't be here, trying to adapt," said Jim with a chuckle. "Just one more question—why do you think humanity can even hope to survive this at all?"

"Well, that's my next point, actually" said Tom. "Point Two, adaptation is possible."

"I won't deny that extinction is a possibility, especially on an individual level—when our current system quits supporting them, a lot of people will be taken by surprise, and many of them just aren't going to make it" said Tom. "But I also maintain that at least some of us are going to make a successful adaptation. To do that, we need to find an area that is likely to miss the worst of climate change (like here in the Great Lakes basin) and the worst of civil unrest (like here in Southwestern Ontario), and set up in a specific location with the resources needed to allow us to be self sufficient—rainfall, ground water, topsoil, existing forests, junk yards to salvage from and so forth (like this area here in Inverpen township)—so we don't have to rely on a system that is falling apart. Given that none of these things are that hard to do, some of us will likely manage it."

Tom turned to the white board and wrote, "2. Adaptation is possible". And on the next line, "Self-sufficiency and salvage."

"I hear people saying that there is no hope," said Jane Cook, "that it would it be better to enjoy the best of what civilization has left to offer and then go out with a bang."

Jane was a woman in her fifties who had been introduced to Allan as a psychologist and counselor, specializing in PTSD and trauma therapy.

"Well, I suspect that if you really thought that, you wouldn't be here," replied Tom with a smile. "But from one sort of viewpoint it is a fair enough question, I guess.

Allan could tell that his dad didn't really think it was fair at all—this was exactly the kind of thinking that got under Tom's skin.

"And for a while yet, you could probably fiddle while Rome burns, so to speak, if you happen to have the financial resources to support such a lifestyle. But eventually, things are going to get a lot worse. That stage won't be much fun, and it will likely last long enough to be something you'd want to avoid—you'd be going out not with a bang, but a long wimper or perhaps an extended scream. That's why I am here, doing this, instead."

"Well, Tom," Jane said, "I was thinking more along the line that the kind of life we face here might be something to avoid. I've heard people say they'd rather die than go back to the Middle Ages. And death is always an option."

"Well, Jane, a deliberate descent to the Middle Ages is not what I'm planning—this is not a reenactment of Dies the Fire," said Tom. "We'll be aiming to support an early twentieth century level of technology. I will admit that even that will take some getting used to, for people who've been living with the internet for most of their lives."

Alan knew that what his father meant by early twentieth century technology was electricity. As an electrician he expected to play a big role in setting that up, and he was eager to get at it. But he wondered why Jane was giving his dad such a hard time about this.

"And there you bring us to the heart of the problem," said Jane. "These days even many homeless people have a smart phone and can get free wi-fi for an internet fix when they want one. We are all dependent on the internet to some extent, and it's so darned useful that it is hard to argue against it, or imagine doing without."

"Well, that's for us to decide as a group in the weeks to come," said Tom.

"Good, it will be interesting to see what we decide" replied Jane. "And Tom, I hope you know I'm just giving you the gears here. You've asked me to serve as counselor for this group, since we are both expecting the people will have some trouble adapting to our new lifestyle. And I think that is definitely going to be the case. Though actually, looking around this room, I'm pretty impressed—none of us have been checking our phones since we sat down here. So maybe there is hope."

"I think there is Jane," Tom replied. "And I'm hoping the loss of twenty-first century conveniences will be compensated for by getting away from the trials of capitalism and wage slavery. But I do suspect many of us will find need of your help. And there will be others, yet to arrive, who will have had some harrowing experiences on their way here, and will need your help in coping with that trauma."

"I'm beginning to wonder if I'll be the first person to need my help," said Jane. "It's a lot to take in."

"Indeed it is," said Tom. "Anyway, time to move on to my third point: adaptation is best approached as a communal effort."

"It's clear to me that attaining a significant degree of self-sufficiency is best done as a group effort," said Tom. "Looking around the room, I can see that we already have a set of skills and experiences that no one person or even one couple could ever hope to have. There are many ways to organize a group like this, but regardless of which one we chose, a group it must be."

He turned to the white board, and wrote, " Self-sufficiency—a community effort".

At this point Allan was a little surprised to hear his wife Erica speak up. "Tom, people are hard creatures to get along with. Do you really think putting up with all the interpersonal drama is going to be worth it?"

"I know what you mean, Erica," said Tom, "and I feel the same. Very few of us have had the opportunity to try this sort of a living situation. It's going to be a learning experience, and it will take some effort. But, yes, I think that it will definitely be worth it.

"Still, you are right to be concerned. If you look at the history of intentional communities, what you'll see is a lot of failures. Why? Well, several reasons. The single biggest one is that they were often based on magical thinking, the childish idea that if you want something badly enough, you'll get it. And many of the people involved rejected the sort of counting, measuring, calculating and planning that they connected with business—which was exactly what they were trying to get away from. This meant that they were very poorly organized."

"A bunch of hippies, you mean" said Erika.

"More or less," said Tom with a grin. "But another important factor was that they didn't really need the thing to succeed. They had the option of quitting and going back to regular society when the going got tough. We, on the other hand, really need to make this work.

"Some of you may be aware that I am on record as believing that intentional communities are a bad idea. But that was in a bog post that I wrote about twelve years ago, and a number of things have changed, mainly due to the depression. At that time farm land was extremely expensive, now some of it can be had for back taxes. Most people still had jobs back then, and would have been foolish to leave them, where now unemployment is at a ninety year high and most of us here, if we're not retired, are out of work.

"That puts the idea of an intentional community in a much different light, and that's why I have invited you all here. I am optimistic that we can make this work. We all have similar political leanings—we're flaming commies, to put it bluntly—and that should make it easier to agree on how we're going to organize our community."

A tall, skinny fellow cleared his throat and said, "We just got here today and in case the introductions didn't stick, my name is Wilf Janes—Wilf the Welder, they call me. I am, as you say, a leftist. But I have to wonder, Tom—why you think a little group like this can do any better than the whole of capitalism?"

Allan saw Wilf as a potential friend, but this worried him. He didn't think that Tom had had enough time alone with Wilf to arrange this question, but it sure did lead in the direction he knew his father wanted to go.

"Now we'll never get him stopped, "Allan said quietly to his wife Erika who was sitting next to him.

Tom, who had clearly heard Allan, gave him a cold stare, with one eyebrow raised in question.

Allan put up his hands, palms out, and shook his head—an indication that he didn't want to fight. Not yet, anyway....

"Well... ," Tom went on, "I'm not a fan of capitalism. It's only goal is to make rich people richer. It doesn't have a purpose as far as the rest of us go, except to the extent that it can exploit us in one way or another. And it certainly isn't even trying to fix the problems we're concerned about. As I said a moment ago, it tends to cannibalize the very resources it's dependent on, and because of that it just goes from crisis to crisis. Like the present one. So that sets the bar pretty low."

"Sure," said Wilf, "but I hope you've got more up your sleeve than that."

"Oh, I do," replied Tom. "What I'm thinking of is the power of co-operation and sharing. What is often called mutual aid."

He wrote again on the board: "Mutual Aid, Sharing, Co-operation"

"Doesn't sound like much," said Wilf.

"More than you might think," replied Tom. "We're all used to living in a capitalistic society, where we are urged to compete for artificially limited resources. Mutual aid is scoffed at and its strengths are downplayed. If we all started to help each other, capitalism would lose two of the things it relies on —workers and consumers. We have got some learning to do—none of us have had much practice at this sort of thing. But we shouldn't underestimate its possibilities—a co-operative, communal organization acts as a force multiplier for its members."

He turned to the board and added "—Force Multiplier" to the same line.

"For most of our existence as human beings we lived together in small egalitarian groups. Everyone contributed to the extent of their abilities, and were supported to the extent of their needs and the ability of the community to do so. If that sounds familiar, it's a paraphrase of Marx and a description of primitive communism. This was, and is still, a very effective way of organizing small communities. It allowed our relatively small, slow, and weak species to spread over most of the world and occupy a slot at the top of the food chain."

"Actually, I can accept that," said Wilf. "but people aren't equal, so what's this egalitarian thing?"

"People are all different from one another, and it can be pretty hard to say who is better or worse, given that the situation at hand is always changing," said Tom. "But by equal I mean that each member of this group will have equal rights and privileges and an equal voice in our councils. Also, following that communistic ideal, this won't be strict equality—those who need more will get more, and those who are more capable will give more. And just in case there is any doubt, this is regardless of age, gender, race, sexual preferences or anything else that people can find as an excuse to base a prejudice on."

On the board Tom wrote: "Egalitarian Groups, Primitive Communism—from each... to each..."

Turning back to his audience, Tom said, "Actually, I think we are teetering on the edge of the next major area I want to cover. So maybe this would be a good time for a break and perhaps a stretch and some fresh air. Let's take 15 minutes and when we come back, I'll go over some of the specifics of how I hope this is going to work."

Allan checked the time on his phone and quickly set an alarm for 15 minutes. Standing up, he turned to Erika and said, "let's go outside."

"I see your mom heading for the kitchen," she replied. "I think I should give her a hand."

"OK," said Allan, "See you in a bit."

Coming soon, The Porcupine Sage, Part 5, One Last Lecture, Part 2

Links to the rest of this series of posts:
The Porcupine Saga