Sunday, 18 August 2013

Deliberate Descent - Part 1

In one of my earlier posts (What the heck do we do next), I spoke briefly about my ideas on how to prepare for life in the age of scarcity and promised to return to the subject in more detail later. At the time I was at a loss for a single phrase to sum up the kind of response I was thinking of, but in the meantime Adam, at the Contraposition blog, has coined a phrase that perfectly describes the concept:

Deliberate descent is the name I’m going to use for the whole family of ideas that includes “downshifting,” “decivilization,” “uncivilization,” “sustainable” living, “deindustrialization,” etc., plus the variety of particular proposals for doing so, such as John Michael Greer’s Green Wizardry, Sharon Astyk’s Adapting in Place, and Rob Hopkins’s Transition movement. All of these ideas focus more or less on ways of life that use less energy and fewer materials, and advocate adopting those ways of life before the need to do so becomes dire — ”collapse now and avoid the rush,” as Greer recently put it. Although there are differences among these proposals on the periphery, I take the notion of deliberate descent to be a common core between them.

Thanks, Adam –“Deliberate Descent” is exactly the term I was looking for. I’m going to dwell on this subject for the next few posts – it has many aspects that are worth examining. First I’d like to go into some detail about what I think this course of action actually involves.

It seems natural enough to me that coping with the age of scarcity will mean learning to get by while consuming less. In other words, we’ll be giving up some things that many people think they can’t live without. Of course our grandparents, or great-grandparents, did just fine without them, and a great many people in other parts of the world are doing without them today. One significant feature of the growth economy is marketing – the artificial creation of demand by manipulating consumers. Basically we have been told, “you suck, but buy our stuff and you’ll feel better”. How much of this stuff we really need is a question we should to be asking ourselves quite often.

The growth economy was driven by energy from cheap fossil fuels, so it is no wonder that it is grinding to a halt as the supply of those fuels becomes more and more depleted. It seems that we should be trying to reduce our dependence on cheap energy and get out of the growth economy to whatever extent we can, before we become involved in “involuntary descent”, which we surely will if we wait long enough. In the process we should be careful to do as little damage to the environment as possible and perhaps even repair some of the damage that has already been done, recognizing that as the industrial processes that temporarily isolated us from our dependance on the environment become a thing of the past, that dependence will once again become a clear and personal thing.

But where will such a strategy leads us? Well, it is important to remember that circumstances vary and no one can predict the future. So we need to start out by encouraging a large variety of different approaches. Dissensus, the opposite of consensus, is really a very good idea in this situation – simply agreeing to disagree, while still supporting each others efforts, so we try out all kinds of different ideas to see what actually does work.

But even so, one can see some fairly obvious things to try. What follows is my general analysis of the problems we will be facing and some specific ideas for how to cope with them.

The first place deliberate descent will lead us is home, since globalization is dependent on cheap transportation, which is largely dependent on cheap oil. This idea has even been given a name, “relocalization”, which is the opposite of globalization and involves businesses which are smaller in scale and operate at the local level. The idea of globalization was to produce goods where it can be done at the lowest cost, ensuring the highest profits for the owners of the businesses involved. And despite its negative side effects, globalization did succeed in producing low cost consumer goods – when transportation was a trivial part of the cost of those goods. But this is already beginning to change and as the cost of transportation fuel continues to soar, local producers will be able to compete more effectively.

Unfortunately, the industries that once produced many types of goods here in North America have been largely dismantled. Getting them going again with the economy faltering, demand down and investment capital in short supply may be quite a challenge. Foreign suppliers will be priced out of the market and local suppliers will be slow to develop. As demand drops for expensive luxury goods while the cost of making them continues to increase, many will become simply unprofitable to produce and will be in short supply, if available at all. For necessities, where demand is much less elastic, prices will go through the roof. We will need to get by on locally produced goods and do everything we can to encourage those who would produce goods locally. Money, energy and food are the first areas to work on.

Currently, our financial system creates money by issuing debt and financial institutions profit from this by charging interest. In order for this to work, the economy must grow so that the interest, as well as the principle, can be paid on the loans. This system came about because cheap energy, in the form of fossil fuels, was driving growth and the money supply had to be able to expand to keep up. But now the days of cheap energy and growth are over and much of the debt that exists is unlikely to ever be paid off. Our financial system is ill suited for these circumstances and has entered a deflationary spiral which shows every sign of continuing for a very long time.

Unfortunately, it is not just the financial system that is suffering. Regular commercial business rely on banks to provide short term credit in order to do business. Relocalized businesses are no exception. As the banks weaken to the point where they can no longer facilitate commerce, we will have to come up with some alternatives. Many local money systems have been proposed and a few even tried. It seems that they will evolve from a novelty to a standard feature of localized commerce.

With the industrial revolution, fossil fuel powered machinery largely replaced human labour. There is an old argument about new mechanized industries creating more jobs than the old industries they replaced and, for a while, they did. But we have ended up with a broken economy and high and increasing unemployment. Many of our efforts to cope involve improving efficiency in the sense of reducing the amount of human labour it takes to produce goods, when in fact human labour is the only resource that is not in short supply. As we relocalize industry, it will be necessary to consider more labour intensive approaches which require less up front investment in mechanization – “appropriate technology” rather than the latest in high tech.

But still we are going to need some energy, if only to heat our homes and cook our food, and it is going to have to come from renewable sources. The trouble is that renewables (according the best estimates that I have found) are only going to be able to provide somewhere between 10 and 20% of the energy we have grown accustomed to having available. And that’s if an organized effort is made to switch over to renewables while fossil fuels are still relatively cheap – if it isn’t already too late. Further, it seems unlikely to me that we will be able to operate wide area power grids under these circumstances. In particular, rural areas like the one where I live, where load is spread out and a lot of lines and maintenance are required to service relatively few customers, will be abandoned first by the power companies. We will have to turn to biomass (primarily in the form of wood), small scale water power, wind and solar. But mainly wood, and this will be very hard on existing forests. Efforts to reforest marginal agricultural land should be started before the demand for firewood goes up.

Currently the industrial food system is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Fuel for agricultural equipment, nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, transportation, refrigeration, processing and so forth all rely on cheap energy to provide food at an affordable price. Industrial agriculture has also been optimized to produce well only under ideal weather conditions. There is a commonly accepted myth that large scale, energy intensive industrial farming is the only way to feed the already large and still growing population of the planet. If this is so, we have a problem. The industrial food system is acutely sensitive to a number of the threats we now face. As the price of energy goes up, so does the price of food. As climate change progresses and the weather becomes less reliable, yields go down drastically. And industrial farming relies on credit to buy its inputs so the collapse of the financial system can have a direct and detrimental effect on it.

Already the poor are having trouble feeding themselves and almost all of us can expect to become poorer as time passes. Add to this the fact that the food distribution system relies on stable financial and political conditions, and it seems likely that trouble will start long before there is an actual shortage of food. Fortunately, that myth I mentioned about industrial agriculture really is just a myth. Sustainable eco-agriculture techniques can outperform industrial agriculture and are much less dependent on cheap energy, ideal weather conditions and easy credit.

We should be looking for local farmers who are switching over to sustainable practices and encourage them to supply us directly with food. Unfortunately, the people who own the majority of the farmland are firmly tied to the present system. In many areas getting access to land on which to grow local food is going to be one of the main challenges.

As you may have been noticing, relocalization seems to work pretty much at a community level. The age of growth taught us all to work as individuals – we have largely forgotten how to function at a community level. This is going to make relocalization a lot harder than it needs to be.

But there are a lot of things individuals and families can do to prepare for and adapt to the age of scarcity. Most of us are going to experience a significant decrease in our level of prosperity – to put it simply, we’re going to get poorer. Might as well call this “involuntary descent”. In our society there is a real stigma attached to being poor, and our initial reaction is to try to keep up appearances, to put off admitting our situation until we have absolutely no choice. The essence of “voluntary descent” is to acknowledge what is coming, to admit that we are not going to be exempt from it, and to take steps to adapt in advance while we still have the resources to do so. Such adaptations will surely be more effective than if we wait until we are backed into a corner with no choices, no remaining resources and no skills at living in a very different way than we have customarily done for most of our lives. Now is the time to develop those skills and the new ways of thinking that go with them.

That will be the subject of my next post. In the meantime, check out some links that will give you a wider look at the idea of deliberate descent.

The Transition Town Movement

Transition Network
Transition Culture, Rob Hopkins blog
Transition Town Totnes – the first Transition Town
Transition US website
Transition Canada Facebook Group

Adapting in Place

Sharon Astyk's Blog
Sharon's books at New Society Publishers
Sharon's books at

Green Wizardry

John Michael Geer's blog
JMG's books at
JMG's books at New Society Publishers

The Simpler Way

The Simplicity Institute website
The Simpler Way website

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