Saturday, 22 March 2014

Deliberate Descent, Part 3

Consequences—intended and unintended.

When proposing a course of action it is important, in my opinion, to consider the consequences. And not just the immediate, intended consequences. So often one hears some bright individual saying, “if we just did this, then that would happen and all our problems would be solved.” Unfortunately, chains of cause and effect don’t stop at the first step, even if we neglect to consider that there might be further steps. A simple change that we make propagates through the system in question and has results that we never imagined. Yesterday’s solutions turn into today’s and tomorrow’s problems.

I’ve done some computer programming in my day, both as a hobby and as part of my day job, and one thing I observed is that much of the discipline involved in programming is to write code in such a way that changes made later have predictable results. A huge amount of effort is expended to achieve this and yet many of the bugs that exist are there because a change made to fix one part of the program has broken another part, in a way that wasn’t anticipated.

I also taught a course in electronics to apprentice electricians for a few years. Part of that course was troubleshooting the kind of equipment that the students would be maintaining in the field. Beyond a standard set of faults that they had to identify and correct, it was always fun to pose more interesting problems for the brighter students. I thought I knew that equipment pretty well when I started and expected I could easily predict what would happen when I removed a wire or installed a defective transistor. I quickly ran into unintended consequences and learned more in the process than the fellows I was supposed to be teaching.

That equipment was supposed to be designed to work in a predictable way. The systems in our natural environment (ecologies) were not designed at all, but have evolved largely by chance. Their individual parts are interconnected in extremely complex and non-obvious ways and their behavior is nonlinear, even chaotic. If you change one thing, it affects many other things and you are guaranteed to have unintended consequences. Humans societies are similar and have the added twist that changes made by one agency may be anticipated and actively opposed by others.

One sees politicians running into this sort of thing quite frequently. The only surprising thing is that they are surprised and often indignant when things don’t go as they expected. I call these people “One Step Willys” because they are incapable of thinking a plan out beyond the first step. These days, political opinions tend to be very polarized and the notion that the party line could be anything other than the “one true way” is simply unthinkable for many people.

It seems that failing to think about potential consequences of our actions is a human weakness that we all share. But at the same time, we will act, even if only by doing nothing. Doing nothing allows the current situation to continue, which may well be as bad as the consequences of any action we are considering.

I am proposing Deliberate Descent as a solution to the the problems we face – economic contraction, resource depletion (especially Peak Oil), and environmental degradation (especially Climate Change). In brief this solution involves reducing consumption and debt, relocalizing business and industry and working together more closely in our local communities.

Have I thought about what the consequences of this course of action might be? Well, quite a bit, actually. I could go on at some length about the beneficial effects on individuals and families, and even communities, but that’s not really my focus in this post. I want to concentrate on the parts that are harder to consider seriously – the challenges that will make it hard to achieve and the negative consequences that would follow after initial success.

  1. Will it work?

    1. Even if we are wrong about the troubles ahead...

      What if I am wrong? What if the problems I’ve identified aren’t really so big and things aren’t really heading the the direction I think they are? What if things don’t get any worse and “business as usual” manages to make a recovery and continue on to deliver the future we dreamed of when we were kids? If you’ve already started working on deliberate descent, will the arrival of that sort of a future leave you disadvantaged in any way?

      Well, most of the things you’ll be working on will stand you in good stead, even if things don’t turn out a bad as we fear. You may have missed out on some investment opportunities, but the fact that you’ve minimized your debt load will make it easier to take advantage of opportunities should it become clear that the economy has turned around.

    2. And if we are right…

      If I am right, is deliberate descent going to be an effective response? In the short run it certainly seems that being prepared to get by on less—to be good at being poor, will be a help as the recession deepens and many of the necessities get more expensive. Reducing expenses, reducing debt load, reducing our involvement in the formal economy and finding alternative sources for the things we currently rely on the formal economy to provide – all this will help.

      I don’t for a moment mean to suggest that descending voluntarily will render us impervious to the perils of descent, but it should be a whole lot better than staying in a state of denial and trying to keep up appearances just as long as we possibly can, while going ever deeper into debt to finance the project. Though the latter does seem to be a popular response these days....

  2. Effects on the individuals and families involved.

    1. Challenges

      Perhaps it goes without saying that many aspect of deliberate descent will be difficult. But I think the hardest part will be breaking the many habits we have of consumption and waste, and changing the assumptions of entitlement that become part of our mind set. Most of these things we are hardly even aware of, and the first step on the road to change is awareness.

      Missing a meal, spending time indoors at other than ideal room temperature, wearing clothes that aren’t the latest style or that have been mended instead of discarded, walking more than a few blocks because we don’t have a car... all these experiences and more lie ahead of us, and none of them will kill us.

    2. Negative effects

      We tend to judge our well being not by it’s absolute level, but relative to our situation in the past or to that of those around us. This means that most of us try to live beyond our current means, so that we are always improving, relying on ongoing economic growth to improve our situation and keep us from going under. Or, at the very least, the hope of being able to improve our situation gives us an ongoing feeling of well being, whether it is real or not. But the idea of deliberate descent is just the opposite—living beneath our means to prepare for the day of expected decline and using the surplus thus created to pay off debts and fund material preparations. So, compared to our neighbours or our own previous situation, it’s going to feeling like we are doing even worse than we are.

      While you are working on the kind of things that I discussed in my last post, you’ll probably be watching your neighbours borrowing to buy new cars, wide screen TV’s and expensive vacations. All of which you can be pretty sure they can’t really afford. It will be fairly tough to keep clearly in mind the reasons why you are doing what you are doing and not to give in and enjoy some of the “finer things” that money can buy while you still can. Of course, you’ll be doing what you’re doing so that you don’t have to worry so much about what the future holds. The struggle is to keep that goal firmly in mind.

      And of course, all those other people are watching you, and you have to figure they think what you are doing is pretty weird. Why should you care what they think? A good question, but it is only human nature to do so and requires some effort to resist.

      Poverty tends to be very isolating. Of course, some of that is cause, not effect, in that people often fall into poverty because they are isolated, without a network of family and friends to help them out when they fall into difficulties. But I think there may also be a tendency, when descending deliberately to feel somewhat isolated and even to let oneself become isolated, because so few of those around us agree with what we are doing. This is a tendency to be resisted, by seeking out and working together with others of a similar mind.

  3. Effects on the physical environment.

    The lighter load on the environment due to reduced consumption should be a positive effect. But as we come to rely less on the conventional economy, which generally draws on resources from far away, we may draw more from the local natural environment. One hopes that the net result will still be a win for the environment, but it would help to be aware of potential problems and plan ahead so as not to make them worse.

    We’re likely to be turning more to locally grown biomass, mainly firewood, for energy.

    This is fine if it is part of a carefully managed forestry program, but if people just go cutting trees willy-nilly without any thought to replacing them, it won’t be long before not a single tree is left standing. We urgently need to start planting more trees now, on marginal and unused farm land, and not just monoculture stands of whatever grows fastest, but carefully thought out, ecologically sound forests.

    With modern high efficiency stoves and properly seasoned wood, air pollution due to woodburning can be quite minimal. But it is not hard to see a time in the near future when many who have never burnt wood before will be eager to switch over to it and there will be a desperate shortage of good stoves and dry wood. The result could be pretty ugly.

    One might think that gardening shouldn’t hurt the environment, but it is not without its pitfalls, as well.

    Vegetable gardening takes nutrients out of the soil and if one follows organic gardening principles, they will be replaced by compost. But where is the compost to come from? Ultimately, it must come from the waste of the animals who eat the vegetables, or the soil will be depleted, and the waste will cause pollution wherever else it is being disposed of. The use of “humanure” is practically a taboo subject with most people these days, but it is one we are going to have to get our heads around.

    In the area where I live we seem to be getting less rain when it is needed during the growing season, evidently due to climate change. This means that gardens need to be watered more, placing a greater strain on our groundwater resources, at a time when they are already strained by the reduced rainfall. Of course, there are techniques for gardening with less water and to make the water you have go further. We’ll need to learn and practice them.

    As food in the grocery stores becomes more and more expensive, some people are going to turn to hunting to add some meat to their diets. Where I live, hunting is well regulated by the government, enough so that poaching isn’t a very bright idea and game is not over hunted to any great extent. I expect this will change, as some begin to see hunting as a necessity instead of just a sport and as the government agency which regulates hunting and fishing has its budget cut and can’t enforce the rules as effectively.

    I have heard that the deer population in the eastern US took a long time to recover after the Great Depression of the 1930s. This sort of thing is a pity, as the hunters who deplete game populations are, so to speak, “shooting themselves in the foot”. We’ll need to practice some voluntary conservation, or there won’t be any game left to hunt.

  4. Effects on the social environment.

    1. Within the descending communities

      First, I should make it clear that I realize the path of descent is not a popular option – I’d be surprised if more than a small fraction of one percent of the population is attracted to it. In the attempt to attract support for the effort, it is tempting to sugar coat the prospects, out of concern that too abrupt an introduction to the harsh realities of the situation will drive people away. Personally, I think that such sugar coating is liable to attract large numbers of people who think that simply by switching over to renewable energy sources and recylcing we can basically carry on with a greened-up verison of business as usual, with only minimal personal inconvenience. Those of us who wish to find a survivable path through the end of industrial civilization would be sidetracked into trivial greenwashing.

      As I’ve said before, this is my main criticism of the Transition Movement. The leadership are solid people and know what the situation is, but the rank and file are largely in denial about what they are transitioning to, and what they will be leaving behind. This disconnect is a result of a deliberate policy of not being “negative” about the current situation.

      But while keeping the hazards of getting side tracked into a “popular movement” clearly in mind, it is also important to realize that people who are engaged in deliberate descent can benefit from working together in communities. Communal action is nearly always more effective than solitary action, especially from within a system that is meant to isolate and exploit us. But this is something we have been raised to be blind to, always counting the benefits of individuality and independence to be paramount.

      Our relationships with most everyone outside our nuclear families are monetized and mediated by the formal economic system. We have forgotten how to live in any sort of real community, working alone in cubicles, staring at screens and wearing earphones that cut us off from those around us.

      So we will have a lot to learn about the sort of give and take that is required to make a small community work. It is important to remember that this is the sort of social environment that we evolved in, and that our modern independence is gained by sacrificing benefits that we hardly remember the names of anymore. It seems likely that we can learn to live in small, close knit groups again, though the learning curve will be steep. As we do so, I can see a number of pitfalls to watch out for.

      It is often assumed that moving to a lower energy lifestyle, and consuming less, will carry us back in time to traditional ways of living. Perhaps so, but it is important to remember that those were the days of oppression, when the “upper” class maintained their privileged position by making sure that those below them didn’t gain the power or opportunity to challenge them. The story was that they were protecting the weak and less capable or in the case of some oppressed groups, protecting the rest of society from depravity. Some would say that the gains in social justice that have been made in the last century are just another benefit of our fossil fuel powered growth economy, and that they will disappear when we no longer have lot of cheap energy to draw on. Nonsense, I say, and convenient nonsense, especially if you are an old white guy wanting to retain your privileged position. What we have learned need not be unlearned, and if you are female, a person of colour, or not heterosexual, why should you give up what you have gained? In fact, the freedoms we have gained have allowed previously oppressed groups to make a greater contribution to society, to more fully realize their human potential, to the benefit of us all. But there are those who long for the “good old days” when such people knew their “proper place”. And I am afraid there will be a tendency for white, heterosexual males to get into positions of power and run the communities of descent. This is to be avoided at all costs. Being hijacked by “flakes” with a tenuous grip on reality is not what we want either. And there are lots of them around. More on this in another post.

      Relocalization is an important part of deliberate descent, but it is important to remember that the tying together of larger and larger economic regions that happened during our history was a solution to a set of problems that haven’t gone away and may indeed be getting worse.

      When your local area is subject to variations in climate, crops may fail. If you are completely isolated, this may well be disastrous. Another locality may have a surplus and if you can come to a mutual aid agreement, you will both be less vulnerable. This kind of problem solving, by adding complexity, is a basic element of human ingenuity. With complexity comes costs, and in the case of our modern global society the costs probably outweigh the benefits, especially when no longer subsidized by cheap fossil fuels. So we need to wind things back to a simpler form of organization, but hopefully not all the way back to the stone age.

    2. Reaction from the mainstream community

      “You’re taking my stuff away!”

      Most people respond to any talk about the changes that are going on in the world today by assuming it all means that their wealth and privileges are going to be taken away from them. Or, if they don’t feel very wealthy or privileged, at least that they’ll have to live at a level of comfort and convenience much less than what they have become accustomed to. Once they reach that sort of conclusion, they quit listening – “our lifestyle is not negotiable”, as the saying goes.

      Of course, those of us who advocate descent are not trying to take away anyone’s wealth and privileges (or even conveniences and comforts), but rather saying that these things are going to decrease for most everyone as part of the largely unavoidable course of events over the next few decades. We’d just like to soften the blow as much as possible and help people adapt. But I am pretty sure that such talk will fall on deaf ears and that descenders will get blamed for economic contraction because we are not supporting the business as usual economy with our shopping dollars and also just because we are different.

      Because of this, I am not at all certain that the consciousness raising efforts being pursued by some of the groups advocating direct descent are all that great an idea. Certainly, arguing with any of the denier groups that are springing up is a waste of time. Denial has become a multi-hundred-million dollar business over that last few years – denial of anthropogenic climate change, denial of peak oil, denial of the inherent structural problem of capitalism, even things as stupid as denial of the facts about evolution. If you’re trying to raise public awareness about any of these areas, going head to head with the deniers just gives them credibility and an opportunity to get their ideas in front of the public. This has got to be the opposite of what you want to do.

Well, I’ve about run out of steam, and I think it’s time to turn this over to my readers. I do hope to get some comments about things that I haven’t even considered so far; it would be a big help, actually!

This is the third in a series of three posts:

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