How Not to Play the Game

It’s been more than a year now since the theme of “green wizardry” became central to the posts here on The Archdruid Report, and I’ve pretty much covered the first two of the three themes I mean to discuss before it becomes time to shift the conversation elsewhere. We’ve discussed organic gardening and its associated arts, and we’ve discussed homescale energy production and conservation. At this point, before we go on to the third leg of the tripod, which used to be called “recycling” thirty years ago and deserves a more robust name now, I’d like to step back for a moment and talk a bit about strategy.

Yes, there’s a strategy underlying the selection of projects and possibilities I’ve been discussing here. The focus on Seventies-era organic gardening, appropriate technology, and the like is not merely a matter of nostalgia for a time when America seemed to be on the brink of taking its future seriously, before it collectively took the coward’s way out, nor is it simply a recognition that we don’t have a lot of time left and would be wise to concentrate on options that have already had the bugs worked out – though this latter may well be a point worth making. Rather, by some combination of prudence, prescience, and sheer dumb luck, the toolkit of ecotechnic options pieced together by the backyard farmers, basement inventors, shoestring-budget nonprofits and local government initiatives of that time happen to be very nearly uniquely suited to one of the dominant features of the future ahead of us.

To understand the way this works, it’s going to be necessary to look at some of the least welcoming features of that future, and that in turn is going to require a look back at a vision of history I first sketched out here years ago, and developed in more detail in the pages of my book The Ecotechnic Future. That look is going to require close attention to some of the least pleasant features of where we’re headed as a society. Unwelcome as that may be, it can’t be avoided, for it’s precisely as a response to the more troubling dimensions of our future that the strategy I have in mind has its place.

The fast version of the take on the future I want to discuss divides it up into four overlapping phases or periods, labeled according to the basic modes of economic production that predominate during each one. The first of these, the one in which most of us grew up and to which nearly all current political, economic and social thought is attuned, is abundance industrialism. This is the phase in which the supply of goods and services available to people in the world’s industrial nations by and large increases with each passing year. Yes, I know, it’s heresy to suggest this, but my take is that what drove that increase was not the growth of human knowledge, or any of the other comforting mantras offered by the publicists of science and industry over the last century or so. Rather, what drove it was simply an exponential increase in consumption of the Earth’s finite reserves of fossil fuels.

With the arrival of geological limits to fossil fuel production, we enter the second phase, scarcity industrialism. This is the phase in which the supply of goods and services available to people in the industrial nations peaks and begins to contract. According to mainstream economic doctrines, that can’t happen, which may be one of the reasons why we’ve become so good at ignoring it. Few people notice, for example, that most of what’s for sale in supermarkets is a little smaller and a little more shoddily made with every passing year, while the price stays level or creeps upwards; few people talk about the disappearance of scores of once-common services – try to get a perfectly good shoe with a worn heel repaired in most American cities nowadays – or think about the way that municipal services always seem to contract while the cost always seems to expand.

All these are part of the same process, the rise and fall of scarcity industrialism, which ends when the level of goods and services being produced drops below the level needed to support any kind of industrial system at all. After that come salvage societies, which no longer have the energy per capita that would be needed for industrial modes of production at all, and concentrate on extracting value from the legacy left behind by the industrial past. Later on – probably some centuries later – the salvage era winds down as the salvage runs out, and new societies depending on natural, renewable resources take their place. In a fit of optimism, I labeled this latter phase the ecotechnic era, and suggested that it could potentially see some amount of relatively advanced technology supported on a truly sustainable basis; I still think that’s possible, though it’s going to take quite a bit of work now, and even more in the centuries to come, to make it likely.

Still, it’s the age of scarcity industrialism that deserves close attention right now, since most of the world’s industrial nations are somewhere along the trajectory that leads there. It’s tough to make predictions, as Yogi Berra once pointed out, especially about the future. Some of the main features of developed societies in the age of scarcity industrialism aren’t too difficult to predict, though, partly because equivalent processes have happened before, and partly because some nations right now are much further along the trajectory than others and provide a useful glimpse ahead.

The role of social conflict is one of the features that’s fairly predictable. In an age of abundance, the easiest way to deal with social conflict is to buy off the disaffected. That’s how industrial societies over the last century came to provide welfare for the poor, mortgage guarantees and college grants for the middle class, subsidies for farmers, tax breaks for businesses – name a group that’s had enough political savvy to organize and raise a ruckus, and you can just as quickly name the arrangements by which they were paid off to minimize the risk of disruptions to the system. That was politically feasible in an expanding economy; even when the shares of the existing pie were grossly unequal, the fact that everyone could have at least a little more each year made those with smaller slices willing to work with the system in order to get their cut.

In an age of scarcity, that easy option no longer exists, and social conflicts heat up rapidly. That’s the unmentioned subtext for much of what’s going on in politics on both sides of the Atlantic just now. The middle class, who shrugged and turned its collective back when the working classes of Europe and America were thrown to the sharks thirty years ago, are now discovering to their horror that they’re next on the list, as the rentier class – the relatively privileged fraction of industrial society that makes its living from investments rather than salaries – struggles to maintain its prosperity at everyone else’s expense. (The middle class did exactly the same thing when it had the chance – ask any impoverished working class family in Pittsburgh or Glasgow – so sympathy cards sent their way may be misplaced.) The gutting of social safety nets, the slashing of salaries and benefits, and the impoverishment of millions of previously affluent people are part of that process, and lead to a rising spiral of social conflict that may well push a good many nations into crisis or collapse.

Not, it’s probably worth noting, into revolution. It’s an interesting detail of history that revolutions rarely happen in ages of decline; the classic recipe for revolution is an extended period of economic improvement for the bulk of the population, followed by a standstill or a reversal. (The government of China would do well to take note of this.) In times of decline, the class and group solidarity essential to an effective revolution dissolves into a scramble for slices of a shrinking pie, in which your own peers are usually your worst enemies. Mind you, social hierarchies get fed through a blender in times of decline; the former holders of wealth and power tolerably often end up starving in alleys if they don’t simply get their throats cut, while sufficiently ruthless individuals from well down the ladder can climb right up to the top. Sill, the general trend in ages of scarcity is that the circle of people who have access to wealth and privilege narrows step by step, leaving most of their former peers to scramble for scraps or to claw their way into the charmed circle by fair means or foul.

Now it might in theory be possible for a country to extract itself from this kind of spiral descent into the kind of social conflict that normally ends in some form of authoritarianism. The chance that the United States will manage such a last-minute save, though, is pretty slim at this point if it exists at all. We’re already seeing even the most basic services provided by local government slashed to a degree unequalled in the industrial world; what remains of a social safety net that was already an embarrassment among developed nations is pretty clearly headed for the chopping block; the machinery of government in state houses and Congress alike is jamming up as pressure groups of every kind launch increasingly frenzied efforts to cling to wealth and influence at everyone else’s expense. The "health care reform" pushed through by the Obama administration, a political absurdity meant to prop up a faltering medical-pharmaceutical industry by mandating that people who can’t afford health insurance have to pay for it anyway, is as good an example as any.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s unlikely to get any more attractive any time soon. Still, it’s important to understand why societies in decline so often plunge into this sort of self-defeating spiral. One of the major problems faced by any society in decline is the almost universal unwillingness of such societies to deal with the fact that they are indeed in decline. It’s a problem rather than a predicament; that is to say, it has a solution; but the solution – accepting that the glory days of the past are over, and that the new and unwelcome reality of contraction and limitation will be around for the foreseeable future – is normally accepted only after every other imaginable response or nonresponse is tried out, and found wanting. A rising spiral of absurd beliefs, grandiose projects, and violent political passions is a standard part of the evasive maneuvering that goes into avoiding that one necessary step, and we’ve got plenty of examples currently, of course.

Here again, though, we’re dealing with a problem rather than a predicament, because there’s at least one way out of the trap I’ve just outlined. The declining years of a rich and powerful society resemble nothing so much as a game of musical chairs in which, in the end, all the chairs will be taken away. What’s the winning strategy in a game in which everyone inevitably loses sooner or later? That’s a simpler question than it sounds: the way to win is not to play the game.

And that, in turn, is what we’ve been talking about for the last year: how not to play the game.

The struggles of the age of scarcity industrialism will focus with increasing bitterness and intensity on access to the remaining benefits of industrial society as we’ve known it – above all, the cheap abundant energy that powers automobiles and planes, keeps wall sockets supplied with electricity, brings foodstuffs and consumer goods from around the world, and provides the context and the income for jobs in the increasingly overlapping spheres of business, government, and the military. The struggles for these things, if historical equivalents are anything to go by, will focus on certain geographical and social battlefields and have increasingly limited effects anywhere else. Those who turn their backs on the things being fought over, and distance themselves from the battlefields, have a very good chance of staying clear of the resulting difficulties.

That’s what the green wizard toolkit is meant to do. Those who have a place in the country or can get one won’t have any need to depend on a faltering corporate food system for their daily meals; those who focus instead on the small-city approach will be able to supplement sacks of bulk grains and legumes from the farm belt with produce from a backyard garden, amplified with henhouse and/or rabbit hutch as circumstances permit. Those in either situation who know how to insulate and weatherize, and provide the small amount of energy they need from homescale sources, will be able to ignore the decline of the electrical grid. Those who learn how to get the things they need from salvage, instead of relying on global supply chains fed from rapidly depleting resource stocks, will be able to stand aside as what’s left of the global economy circles the drain and goes down it. Those who do these things, teach these things to neighbors and friends, and help build local networks of mutual exchange and support, will be creating the social frameworks of the next stage of the future – the stage of salvage societies – within the crumbling skeleton of the old industrial order.

Now it’s common enough, when a plan such as this is suggested, for people to insist that it’s all very well and good, but the government, or the corporations, or roving hordes of zombies, or somebody else equally colorful and convenient will inevitably come and take it all away. That seems logical, but it only seems logical because the people who suggest it haven’t grasped the implications of the toolkit I’ve been suggesting here. That is to say, they haven’t noticed that the lifestyles that are possible when your food comes from a backyard garden, your heat comes from a wood stove, and your job comes from refurbishing salvage of one kind or another, are not comfortable middle class American lifestyles, or anything like ithem.

What we are talking about, to borrow a phrase from Henry David Thoreau, is voluntary poverty. The founders of the modern movement of "voluntary simplicity" backed away uncomfortably from the noun in Thoreau’s phrase, and thereby did themselves and their movement a huge disservice; it’s all too easy to turn "voluntary simplicity" into a sales pitch for yet another round of allegedly simple products at fashionably high prices. The concept of voluntary poverty does not lend itself anything like so well to such evasions. The idea, Thoreau’s idea, is to deliberately embrace being poor, in every material sense, in order to avoid the common fate of being possessed by your possessions.

That’s a valid choice at any phase of history’s wheel, but it takes on a great deal more importance than usual in an age when being anything but poor makes you a target for practitioners of involuntary poverty who are fixated on scrambling over you on their way back up toward a fading vision of extravagant wealth. This is why monasticism works so well in the declining years of civilizations and the dark ages that follow them, for successful monastic traditions invariably embrace strict poverty. Having nothing to steal, they don’t need to worry about thieves, and a traditional habit of choosing locations well away from the centers of wealth and power is also worth noting – Monte Cassino in Italy, the Shaolin Monastery in China, and Koyasan in Japan, where St. Benedict, Bodhidharma, and Kobo Daishi respectively founded three of the world’s great monastic traditions, were all more or less in the middle of nowhere when the first simple dwellings were erected there.

What most Americans do not know, and have no interest in learning, is that it’s possible to be poor in relative comfort. (One of the advantages of a writer’s career, with its traditional slow start, is that I had ample opportunity to learn this.) The central secret of green wizardry is that one way to be poor and comfortable is to learn how to work with nature, so that natural processes take care of many of the needs you’d otherwise have to spend money to meet. The appropriate technology movement of the Seventies was predisposed to develop along this path by its roots in the Sixties counterculture, which however briefly and inconsistently held up the ideal of voluntary poverty to a mostly baffled consumer economy. Where most of today’s chatter about solar technology focuses on grid-tied PV systems, vast arrays of mirrors in the Nevada desert, solar satellites, and the like – all things that can be built only in an economy of abundance with resources to spare, and thus are useless in the future we’re facing – the equivalent talk in the Seventies as often as not focused on homebuilt solar water heaters, bsolar ovens, and other things that could be cobbled together in a basement out of salvaged materials, and thus are relevant to our time and the time ahead of us.

It’s quite possible that some of the things I’ve been discussing will end up being used in monasteries during the dark age that follows the decline and fall of our civilization. Still, that’s for the future to decide. The present concern, at least for me, is getting these things remembered in time to make it through the next forty or fifty years of crisis, the next step down on the road to that future dark age, as America’s global empire comes unglued and a nation used to living on a quarter of the world’s energy supply and a third of its industrial products gets to learn what it’s like to live on a great deal less. If the things we’ve been discussing here get pulled out of the dumpster where America puts its unwanted heritage, and are put to use by people who aren’t terrified of the concept of voluntary poverty, the Benedicts, Bodhidharmas, and Kobo Daishis of the future will at least have the option open to them, and so will a great many less exalted individuals whose lives could well be made happier and better by the application of a little ecotechnic knowledge and a few pieces of highly appropriate technology; and so, dear reader, may you.