Monday, February 16, 2009

Going Down
Epoch - Habitual Mechanism: art by Clinton Cunningham

Social Collapse Best Practices

excerpts from ClubOrlov

Right now the Washington economic stimulus team is putting on their Scuba gear and diving down to the engine room to try to invent a way to get a diesel engine to run on seawater. They spoke of change, but in reality they are terrified of change and want to cling with all their might to the status quo. But this game will soon be over, and they don’t have any idea what to do next.

So, what is there for them to do? Forget “growth,” forget “jobs,” forget “financial stability.” What should their realistic new objectives be? Well, here they are: food, shelter, transportation, and security. Their task is to find a way to provide all of these necessities on an emergency basis, in absence of a functioning economy, with commerce at a standstill, with little or no access to imports, and to make them available to a population that is largely penniless. If successful, society will remain largely intact, and will be able to begin a slow and painful process of cultural transition, and eventually develop a new economy, a gradually de-industrializing economy, at a much lower level of resource expenditure, characterized by a quite a lot of austerity and even poverty, but in conditions that are safe, decent, and dignified. If unsuccessful, society will be gradually destroyed in a series of convulsions that will leave a defunct nation composed of many wretched little fiefdoms. Given its largely depleted resource base, a dysfunctional, collapsing infrastructure, and its history of unresolved social conflicts, the territory of the Former United States will undergo a process of steady degeneration punctuated by natural and man-made cataclysms.

In the United States, the agricultural system is heavily industrialized, and relies on inputs such as diesel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and, perhaps most importantly, financing. In the current financial climate, the farmers’ access to financing is not at all assured. This agricultural system is efficient, but only if you regard fossil fuel energy as free. In fact, it is a way to transform fossil fuel energy into food with a bit of help from sunlight, to the tune of 10 calories of fossil fuel energy being embodied in each calorie that is consumed as food. The food distribution system makes heavy use of refrigerated diesel trucks, transforming food over hundreds of miles to resupply supermarkets. The food pipeline is long and thin, and it takes only a couple of days of interruptions for supermarket shelves to be stripped bare. Many people live in places that are not within walking distance of stores, not served by public transportation, and will be cut off from food sources once they are no longer able to drive.

Besides the supermarket chains, much of the nation’s nutrition needs are being met by an assortment of fast food joints and convenience stores. In fact, in many of the less fashionable parts of cities and towns, fast food and convenience store food is all that is available. In the near future, this trend is likely to extend to the more prosperous parts of town and the suburbs.

Fast food outfits such as McDonalds have more ways to cut costs, and so may prove a bit more resilient in the face of economic collapse than supermarket chains, but they are no substitute for food security, because they too depend industrial agribusiness. Their food inputs, such as high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified potatoes, various soy-based fillers, factory-farmed beef, pork and chicken, and so forth, are derived from oil, two-thirds of which is imported, as well as fertilizer made from natural gas. They may be able to stay in business longer, supplying food-that-isn’t-really-food, but eventually they will run out of inputs along with the rest of the supply chain. Before they do, they may for a time sell burgers that aren’t really burgers, like the bread that wasn’t really bread that the Soviet government distributed in Leningrad during the Nazi blockade. It was mostly sawdust, with a bit of rye flour added for flavor.

Can we think of any ways to avoid this dismal scenario? The Russian example may give us a clue. Many Russian families could gauge how fast the economy was crashing, and, based on that, decide how many rows of potatoes to plant. Could we perhaps do something similar? There is already a healthy gardening movement in the United States; can it be scaled up? The trick is to make small patches of farmland available for non-mechanical cultivation by individuals and families, in increments as small as 1000 square feet. The ideal spots would be fertile bits of land with access to rivers and streams for irrigation. Provisions would have to be made for campsites and for transportation, allowing people to undertake seasonal migrations out to the land to grow food during the growing season, and haul the produce back to the population centers after taking in the harvest.

An even simpler approach has been successfully used in Cuba: converting urban parking lots and other empty bits of land to raised-bed agriculture. Instead of continually trucking in vegetables and other food, it is much easier to truck in soil, compost, and mulch just once a season. Raised highways can be closed to traffic (since there is unlikely to be much traffic in any case) and used to catch rainwater for irrigation. Rooftops and balconies can be used for hothouses, henhouses, and a variety of other agricultural uses.

How difficult would this be to organize? Well, Cubans were actually helped by their government, but the Russians managed to do it in more or less in spite of the Soviet bureaucrats, and so we might be able to do it in spite of the American ones. The government could theoretically head up such an effort, purely hypothetically speaking, of course, because I see no evidence that such an effort is being considered. For our fearless national leaders, such initiatives are too low-level: if they stimulate the economy and get the banks lending again, the potatoes will simply grow themselves. All they need to do is print some more money, right?

Switching back to the situation in the US: in recent months, many people here have reconciled themselves to the idea that their house is not an ATM machine, nor is it a nest egg. They already know that they will not be able to comfortably retire by selling it, or get rich by fixing it up and flipping it, and quite a few people have acquiesced to the fact that real estate prices are going to continue heading lower. The question is, How much lower? A lot of people still think that there must be a lower limit, a “realistic” price. This thought is connected to the notion that housing is a necessity. After all, everybody needs a place to live.

Well, it is certainly true that some sort of shelter is a necessity, be it an apartment, or a dorm room, a bunk in a barrack, a boat, a camper, or a tent, a teepee, a wigwam, a shipping container... The list is virtually endless. But there is no reason at all to think that a suburban single-family house is in any sense a requirement. It is little more than a cultural preference, and a very shortsighted one at that. Most suburban houses are expensive to heat and cool, inaccessible by public transportation, expensive to hook up to public utilities because of the long runs of pipe and cable, and require a great deal of additional public expenditure on road, bridge and highway maintenance, school buses, traffic enforcement, and other nonsense. They often take up what was once valuable agricultural land. They promote a car-centric culture that is destructive of urban environments, causing a proliferation of dead downtowns. Many families that live in suburban houses can no longer afford to live in them, and expect others to bail them out.

As this living arrangement becomes unaffordable for all concerned, it will also become unlivable. Municipalities and public utilities will not have the funds to lavish on sewer, water, electricity, road and bridge repair, and police. Without cheap and plentiful gasoline, natural gas, and heating oil, many suburban dwellings will become both inaccessible and unlivable. The inevitable result will be a mass migration of suburban refugees toward the more survivable, more densely settled towns and cities. The luckier ones will find friends or family to stay with; for the rest, it would be very helpful to improvise some solution.

But if we look just at the changes that are already occurring, just the simple, predictable lack of funds, as the federal government and the state governments all go broke, will transform American society in rather predictable ways. As municipalities run out of money, police protection will evaporate. But the police still have to eat, and will find ways to use their skills to good use on a freelance basis. Similarly, as military bases around the world are shut down, soldiers will return to a country that will be unable to reintegrate them into civilian life. Paroled prisoners will find themselves in much the same predicament.

And so we will have former soldiers, former police, and former prisoners: a big happy family, with a few bad apples and some violent tendencies. The end result will be a country awash with various categories of armed men, most of them unemployed, and many of them borderline psychotic. The police in the United States are a troubled group. Many of them lose all touch with people who are not "on the force" and most of them develop an us-versus-them mentality. The soldiers returning from a tour of duty often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The paroled prisoners suffer from a variety of psychological ailments as well. All of them will sooner or later realize that their problems are not medical but rather political. This will make it impossible for society to continue to exercise control over them. All of them will be making good use of their weapons training and other professional skills to acquire whatever they need to survive. And the really important point to remember is that they will do these things whether or not anyone thinks it legal for them to do be doing them.

Food. Shelter. Transportation. Security. Security is very important. Maintaining order and public safety requires discipline, and maintaining discipline, for a lot of people, requires the threat of force. This means that people must be ready to come to each other’s defense, take responsibility for each other, and do what’s right. Right now, security is provided by a number of bloated, bureaucratic, ineffectual institutions, which inspire more anger and despondency than discipline, and dispense not so much violence as ill treatment. That is why we have the world’s highest prison population. They are supposedly there to protect people from each other, but in reality their mission is not even to provide security; it is to safeguard property, and those who own it. Once these institutions run out of resources, there will be a period of upheaval, but in the end people will be forced to learn to deal with each other face to face, and Justice will once again become a personal virtue rather than a federal department.

OK, first question: How about all these financial boondoggles? What on earth is going on? People are losing their jobs left and right, and if we calculate unemployment the same way it was done during the Great Depression, instead of looking at the cooked numbers the government is trying to feed us now, then we are heading toward 20% unemployment. And is there any reason to think it’ll stop there? Do you happen to believe that prosperity is around the corner? Not only jobs and housing equity, but retirement savings are also evaporating. The federal government is broke, state governments are broke, some more than others, and the best they can do is print money, which will quickly lose value. So, how can we get the basics if we don’t have any money? How is that done? Good question.

As I briefly mentioned, the basics are food, shelter, transportation, and security. Shelter poses a particularly interesting problem at the moment. It is still very much overpriced, with many people paying mortgages and rents that they can no longer afford while numerous properties stand vacant. The solution, of course, is to cut your losses and stop paying. But then you might soon have to relocate. That is OK, because, as I mentioned, there is no shortage of vacant properties around. Finding a good place to live will become less and less of a problem as people stop paying their rents and mortgages and get foreclosed or evicted, because the number of vacant properties will only increase. The best course of action is to become a property caretaker, legitimately occupying a vacant property rent-free, and keeping an eye on things for the owner. What if you can’t find a position as a property caretaker? Well, then you might have to become a squatter, maintain a list of other vacant properties that you can go to next, and keep your camping gear handy just in case. If you do get tossed out, chances are, the people who tossed you out will then think about hiring a property caretaker, to keep the squatters out. And what do you do if you become property caretaker? Well, you take care of the property, but you also look out for all the squatters, because they are the reason you have a legitimate place to live. A squatter in hand is worth three absentee landlords in the bush. The absentee landlord might eventually cut his losses and go away, but your squatter friends will remain as your neighbors. Having some neighbors is so much better than living in a ghost town.

What if you still have a job? How do you prepare then? The obvious answer is, be prepared to quit or to be laid off or fired at any moment. It really doesn’t matter which one of these it turns out to be; the point is to sustain zero psychological damage in the process. Get your burn rate to as close to zero as you can, by spending as little money as possible, so than when the job goes away, not much has to change. While at work, do as little as possible, because all this economic activity is just a terrible burden on the environment. Just gently ride it down to a stop and jump off.

If you still have a job, or if you still have some savings, what do you do with all the money? The obvious answer is, build up inventory. The money will be worthless, but a box of bronze nails will still be a box of bronze nails. Buy and stockpile useful stuff, especially stuff that can be used to create various kinds of alternative systems for growing food, providing shelter, and providing transportation. If you don’t own a patch of dirt free and clear where you can stockpile stuff, then you can rent a storage container, pay it a few years forward, and just sit on it until reality kicks in again and there is something useful for you to do with it. Some of you may be frightened by the future I just described, and rightly so. There is nothing any of us can do to change the path we are on: it is a huge system with tremendous inertia, and trying to change its path is like trying to change the path of a hurricane. What we can do is prepare ourselves, and each other, mostly by changing our expectations, our preferences, and scaling down our needs. It may mean that you will miss out on some last, uncertain bit of enjoyment. On the other hand, by refashioning yourself into someone who might stand a better chance of adapting to the new circumstances, you will be able to give to yourself, and to others, a great deal of hope that would otherwise not exist.

- read the rest at the source

JJ Cale and Leon Russell - Going Down

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