Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Poverty an asset; assets a burden

Another guest post from Chris, most recently from the Outback, but now ensconced in a place that seems much more collapse-proof.

Chris writes of a paradox: lack of assets may be the greatest asset of all.
I don't believe that this is a paradox: the higher you climb, the harder you fall. A place that is used to an artificially high standard of living inevitably develops artificially high standards. These standards cannot be undone overnight, as soon as the standard of living collapses, delaying commonsense adaptations until it is too late. Prosperous places have expensive infrastructure, and, once it can no longer be maintained, it becomes much worse than no infrastructure at all. Lastly, poverty takes practice, and a sudden lapse into poverty is far more traumatic than the habit of a stable but constrained existence.

I have recently moved from Australia, where Peak Oil issues are just beginning to gain traction belatedly in the mainstream press, to the Philippines, where seemingly nobody has even heard of peak oil -- yet.

I have read that the USA is leveraged up to a debt ration approaching 15/1 (1 real dollar for each dollar borrowed). I believe Australia's ratio is about 3/4 of that. The Philippines has a debt ratio of approximately 1/1. Hence when the wolf is finally at the door the Philippines may be in a better fiscal position than countries currently far richer.

However, this is all semantics. The real issue is preparedness.

I believe Australia is in a similar position to the USA and Europe in many regards, beyond financial issues.
The looming disaster in these countries is mostly to do with the feckless assumption that the status quo will somehow continue: private car ownership and food being transported over vast distances being prime among many key vulnerabilities in these societies. Other factors include simple laziness, poor health generally, and addictions to substances both legal and illegal.

Very few people in these countries under the age of about 80 remember anything about what it means to have to survive somehow in the environment, from that environment. Look to the evidence online; how many sites are telling people to stock up on guns and ammo or to stockpile massive amounts of food? The guns will attract violence, the ammo will make those using it targets for those who have less ammo; the food will perish, attract rodents and thieves. In comparison, how many are teaching how to build suburban gardens, recycle small power and methane generators, and other practical adaptations?

The Philippines, like a number of other countries, is living in a paradox of different proportions. Outside of the biggest cities here, food is growing everywhere, in the villages themselves, as well as the agricultural lands around them. Most people here can tell you how to grow a list of useful plants and to raise chickens.
They are also very much used to sharing. There is virtually no government safety net here. To become eligible for social welfare payments, one must have held the same job for ten years; this almost never happens. Yet even in the moderate-sized cities, nobody starves. Interdependence is local and regional rather than national and international. Of course, there is a degree of modernization contributing to the welfare of people. Some people work in the cities or overseas and send money home to support the extended family. But even without this money life would go on.

Most people here are very fit compared to developed nation's. I have seen hardly any overweight people, let alone obese. Washing is done by hand in water pumped by hand from the ground. "Sounds horrible," I hear the average reader murmur: but it works and it means the people are physically fit. The main diet is locally grown rice with similarly grown meats and vegetables. Fruit can be expensive because a lot of it is exported, yet whatever is in season is abundant. The fishing trade here is mostly very small boats with small crews using small nets and lines; there are very few industrial scale fishing boats. I live near a fishing village where 95% of the income is derived from fishing in these small boats; the population of over 2,000 people is the healthiest, happiest bunch I have ever met.

Transport here is a world away from that in developed nations, yet there is no problem getting anywhere. Locally, there are tricycles and jeepneys going past all the time in all directions; these and the buses are very affordable for most people. Only about 2% of households have a car, and maybe half have a private 125cc motorcycle or tricycle. These vehicles get about 100 miles to a gallon of fuel.

The paradox is this: the Philippines greatest asset in the future may be its lack of assets now. Less debt, less dependence on expensive gadgets, less laziness and complacency. More communalism, more integration.

29 comments :

Russian President said...

"When a country acquires a lot of things that are not needed, the people become poor" Lao Tzu

Anonymous said...

As someone who lives in the Philippines (albeit in Manila, a city of perhaps 13-15 million people), I agree with pretty much everything you've said here.

I see two potential problems, though:

1) The Philippines used to be a rice exporter, but is now importing some of its rice from other countries in the region, as some land has been converted to housing estates, golf courses, etc. This proved to be a problem earlier in the year with the runup in global rice prices. In other words, it's not quite self-sufficient when it comes to its most staple food.

2) The Philippines is a very crowded place, and the trend towards over-population is driven by a number of factors that are very much engrained in the culture (e.g. the church here frowns on teaching birth control and actively encourages growth).

Still, I agree about everything you say about people's attitude and habits towards work and self-sufficiency.

Bootstrapper said...

Or, to put it another way; It's less painful to fall into the gutter, from the sidewalk than from the penthouse.

Lloyd Morcom said...

Two things I think need to be noted:

The Philippines are tropical: it's an easier task to grow stuff in such a climate, especially with good soils.

The trouble with places where it's easier to grow stuff in is that they soon fall into the Malthusian Trap: it gets crowded and then people get hungry anyway.

As an Australian working in Indonesia in the seventies I realised that Indonesia was a much richer country in it's natural endowments than Australia, but the pressure of population meant the wealth had to spread thinly.

Every society has its own unhappinesses, but all have the same joys. The more complex infrastructure of the industrialised countries has sprung partly from the need to deal with seasonal surpluses and shortages, and with the requirement for more substantial efforts to get through cold winters. Hence the need to plan ahead, and to accumulate surpluses.

For these reasons I don't think a comparison between a place like the Philippines (or Indonesia) and industrialised societies like the US or Australia is all that useful.

Anonymous said...

Russian President: He said many other timeless things too; thanks for this one.

Anon in Manila: You may correct me but what I think happened is the Philippines exported its better quality rice grades with a view to importing more cheaper grades. i.e. zero sum equation.
It is hard to see past the crowd from Manila; there are still a good number of unspoiled regions here. Are you aware the Government here has changed policy on birth control? Simple methods we in the west have had for decades are finally available here.
Thanks for your point though and the confirmation of a local here.

Bootstrapper: Sounds like collapse aint pretty from where you are? Maybe it's not too pretty from anywhere? Someone else might see the gutter as an opportunity? Irrigation? Small scale hydroelectric?

Lloyd: don't you get it that the stockpiling was made possible by abundant, cheap oil?
Or that a tiny amount of land in Australia in prime (high rainfall) agricultural; the marginal farming in Australia is based on massive energy use for every stage of production?
Sorry mate but like most Aussies you have a lot of reading to do.
On the realities of overpopulation and resource depletion: the end result will be equilibrium. That is not in dispute; the question is how we will get there as a species and as individuals, families and communities.
Keep in mind Australia's economy is one of the least efficient in the world in terms of resource use per capita. Each Australian uses the resources of 17 Filipino. So whilst being 1/5th the size of the Philippines population; Australia uses more than 3 times the resources. My point is this: remove ALL oil tomorrow; Philippines will be far better off than Australia. Can you honestly take off your rose colored glasses and see one person who is producing any important commodity in abundance without reliance on oil? Do you believe the spike in prices for oil this year was a 'Once in a generation Blip'? If so I find it interesting that you mention Malthusian paradox issues on a site which is dedicated to peak oil issues; without acknowledgment of the prime facts of peak oil. It is here now; it is the primary cause of the calamity apparent in international business confidence triggering the current market collapse.
I am sorry but the Malthusian argument concludes in the idea of mass murder at worst, mass suicide at best. Not nice for the kiddies; I prefer a good interesting cold hard stare at grim reality followed by a dose of the better writers of the age such as our host; who can help brighten up the bleak picture presented by the Malthusians. I am not refuting their premise but their lack of faith in humanity.
I'm away from home today.
Chris

Anonymous said...

I spent 2 years living in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and found much of what you say to be true there as well. One big difference is that there is a tremendous crime problem in PNG. One of the best defenses against being robbed is to have nothing worth stealing. Either you have to have to share everything you have with your community (wontoks) or they will steal it from you. Either way you live in poverty no matter how much you earn.

There is a strong ethic in Papua New Guinea that no one in community lives a much higher lifestyle than anyone else in that community. There are villages of 400-500 people where only 4 or 5 people have any cash income which must be shared with the entire community.

Imagine having to support 100 other people with your income. In PNG, living in poverty protects you from being attacked and robbed.

Anonymous said...

The Malthusian problem, sadly, is not a mere rhetorical device. Population has exploded mainly because there was a revolution in the use of fertilizers (nitrogen), which require vast amounts of oil in order to be produced, and of pesticides, which destroy the underlying ecosystem. Take out the industrial fertilizers and you have a grain production that won't even sustain half the current population of the world. Now, the use of nitrogen will end with oil. In the United States, all of this is exemplified by the corn economy, which is concomitant and closely tied to the oil economy. Without modern fertilizers and pesticides, the US would be grossly overpopulated, for example.

Unfortunately, any discussion of population control would be immediately tainted by echoes of eugenics, forced sterilization of certain groups, etc. It is not a discussion that can happen now. Too politically charged.

Anonymous said...

while i agree with the basic premise of the article - the west needs urgently to learn from the survival skills of the "developing world" --i suggest that the author's impressions of philippines nutritional levels are a bit superficial and impressionistic. Here's a readily accessible quote from a US AID-affiliated expert to counter some of what i would characterize as the poster's orientalist romanticism:
"There are now approximately 4 million (32%) preschool children who are underweight-for-age, 3 million (20%) adolescents who are underweight-for-age, and 5 million (13.2%) adults who are chronically energy deficient. Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem, with 7% of pregnant women and 8% of infants under six months being severely deficient. Iron deficiency anemia affects 57% of infants, 51% of pregnant women, and 46% of lactating women. The primary cause of malnutrition is the inequitable distribution of food, which is related of course to poverty. The typical Filipino diet is grossly inadequate for energy and other nutrients, causing human bodies to compensate for inadequate energy intake by utilizing protein as an energy source; the usual result is PEM. This situation is unlikely to improve as long as an estimated 28 million Filipinos are unable to buy food to meet basic nutritional requirements. Poverty in the Philippines is most acute and widespread in rural areas. Although Manila certainly has its share of urban poor, the National Capital Region has the lowest poverty incidence in the country. Nationwide, one can compare the 1997 poverty incidence rates of 21.5% in urban areas to the 50.7% rate in rural areas. The rural poor tend to be self-employed, primarily in agriculture or casual labor. They are almost all landless." - Clarence Henderson, "Notes on Poverty in the Philippines" - 2002-

Anonymous said...

Anon on Malthusian question:
Have you ever heard of 'closed system farming'?
The idea is: a/set up a self perpetuating food growing system. b/ waste NOTHING. Utilize the waste from toilets (Yuck!) for nitrate and phosphate production; possibly methane also for heating/ cooking.
The problem here is that this system will not work in densely populated areas and will only sustain the participants with a little left over for trade. It would take a series of miracles for any modern society to adapt.
Firstly, all sewage would need to be collected and recycled (Yuck!). Suburbs and roads built on agricultural land would need to be dismantled making cities even more crowded. People who are used to making fat pay packets from professional jobs would likely find they are needing to work in the field to earn a share of the produce (Yuck!)
Extremely wasteful farming such as dairy and beef production would need to be quickly phased out.
It strikes me that people would sometimes rather wait for utter disaster or evil totalitarianism than face these distasteful propositions?

Mark Allyn said...

As someone who is simple by Amarican standards, I can fully agree.

Here, I live in Portland, Oregon without a car, TV set, Stereo, Microwave, Blackberry, PDA, and just about any other gadget, I am considered deprived by some of my acquaintences.

Yet, I am very free. I rent. I don't own a over-hocked mcMansion. I have little debt (and that is for tools with which I am learning new trades, sewing, welding, and electronics. If you want to see the stuff that I make from recyclables, I have a journal online at www.allyn.com.

Yes. I am richer than many of my colleagues who are making twice what I am.

Luv

Cleara

Anonymous said...

In response to:

"Have you ever heard of 'closed system farming'?
The idea is: a/set up a self perpetuating food growing system. b/ waste NOTHING. Utilize the waste from toilets (Yuck!) for nitrate and phosphate production; possibly methane also for heating/ cooking."

Yes, traditional rural societies operate on a cycle of reuse or pretty much everything. The problem with traditional farming is that it is necessarily part of a local economy. Local economies have been annihilated by bigness. Perhaps Leopold Kohr and Fritz Schumacher were right when they insisted that bigness was the root of all evils.

Traditional farming is basically subsistence farming, or better said, it is first of all subsistence farming. Surpluses may or may not exist (they are not assured). If it is well done, traditional farming preserves the land, an important consideration. But it also restricts population.

Curiously, the word "agriculture" was not mentioned by either candidate during the US presidential campaign. But then, the word "poor" was not mentioned either. Everyone is middle class. There is something wrong, something profoundly devious in this parlance.

Lastly, let us not overdo the praise for subsistence. It requires a huge amount of work and is not idyllic. Many people today would not conceive of living like that. They also do not understand local economies and local structures. They are used to big states and they are used to being told what to do. Very indirect and mediated...

Anonymous said...

A lot of Americans would seem a lot less lazy if you dropped them off in the middle of one of those Philippine fishing towns. Americans don't like the work we do, but that's only rational as the work is mostly a waste of time. We go fishing as a vacation.

giordano bruno said...

A problrm in RP is the urban settlements/poor barrios/slums are built so densly that there are little or no gardens. As people get access to a little cash, they get rid of the chickens in the yard. Money beats farming is the idea...

The last livestock to go are the fighting cocks, which are lovingly tended and fed - maybe its hard for a anti-cruelty/caged chicken eating westerner to comprehend that...

On the plus side a lot of urban dwellers retain a family link to 'the province' where food is still grown. People are thinking about returning back to 'the province'.
Hard to picture the 50% urban dwellers of the 3rd world all heading 'back home'.

Oddly to western dreamers, the country may be more dangerous than the urban slum, where many eyes preserve some safety in the absence of trustworthy police. In the country you need to afford to feed several strong dogs, not the skinny urban types.

Anonymous said...

Human waste can be composted. This means mixing it with rough organic matter (sawdust, grass, leaves, or some such) and letting air-breathing microbes work on it. In temperate climates this can be done in as little as two years, provided the compost pile goes thermal (temperature attaining 130 F for a few days) which it will do on its own if conditions are right. The heating destroys pathogens to break disease and parasite cycles. Composting for longer times also helps a lot.

This would be much better than what we currently do: Throw it in our drinking water, add a lot of chlorine, and hope for the best. Talk about yuck! Fortunately :) we don't think about where our water comes from or we would never drink again.

Rob said...

Anonymous said: Population has exploded mainly because there was a revolution in the use of fertilizers (nitrogen), which require vast amounts of oil in order to be produced, and of pesticides, which destroy the underlying ecosystem.

No. You're simply looking for causes to support otherwise sound reasoning. The vast inputs of energy are realised not in dense population, but in higher and higher rental value of land. High rental value in turn supports speculation. Ultimately a farmer has to input this amount of energy just to support the speculative value of land. (borrow borrow borrow, cheap plentiful fuels...)

Population seems to be only classified by academics as a 'Malthusian Problem' where people are not landowners: http://www.henrygeorge.org/stillwrong.htm

In the Philippines, seven families own just about all of the land; two of those families are named Marcos and Aquino. What does that make the rest of the folks who live on those islands?

kollapsnik said...

Rob -

Seems like a more complicated way of saying the same thing. Fossil fuel-based fertilizers drove population growth (by way of forcing up land values owned by the wealthy few, forcing farmers into debt in order to blah blah blah). You are just adding a social footnote to physical history.

Anonymous said...

Rob:

Population seems to be only classified by academics as a 'Malthusian Problem' where people are not landowners: http://www.henrygeorge.org/stillwrong.htm

It seems to me that this article conflates several phenomena, all of which are relevant. However, they cannot all be argued on the same plane. Land ownership is surely crucial to the course of history, as is the political regime. I referred to the fact that had it not been for agribusiness (oil + chemistry + purposeful overproduction + ever larger areas dedicated to monocultivation), the world would not sustain half its current population. I believe this is well founded in the data.

In the case of the US, the policy towards agribusiness was explicit, and has created the postwar corn economy, later supplemented with the soy economy. Both feed into the beef industry, a huge misallocation of resources.

None of these phenomena (in the US) have to do with the scarcity of land. In fact, they seem to be based on the availability of land.

Are we on the same page here?

Anonymous said...

> None of these phenomena (in the
> US) have to do with the scarcity
> of land. In fact, they seem to
> be based on the availability of
> land.

> Are we on the same page here?


Yes, I don't disagree with anything that you've written, in fact I like the 'availability of land' bit. Perhaps I'm wrong to argue causes, as the facts on the ground remain the same. Since breaking from the pseudoscience of Economics, I'm still figuring things out, making big changes in my family's life, and ask for patience :)

This weekend I spent all day outside learning to kill, clean, & prepare chicken and turkeys properly. And planning my own chicken coop in the back of my head, the whole time, no time to even feel cold in the -15C weather.

Cheers,
Robt.

Anonymous said...

Robert:

"This weekend I spent all day outside learning to kill, clean, & prepare chicken and turkeys properly. And planning my own chicken coop in the back of my head, the whole time, no time to even feel cold in the -15C weather."

Very logical. The most local of local economies... is the home. Good luck in your enterprise. 15 below sounds vicious, though.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of the global grab for land, this article from the Guardian is scary:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/nov/22/food-biofuels-land-grab

It looks like capital's next move is to grab as much agricultural land as possible. We could see convulsions here.

Bill C said...

Anon said: "don't you get it that the stockpiling was made possible by abundant, cheap oil?"

I disagree. Any culture which exists in an area which has seasonal changes in food supply is going to do some stockpiling in order to get through the "down" periods. Often they would not survive otherwise.

It's that seasonal stockpiling practice which resulted in our current knowledge of canning, drying, salting, and otherwise preserving of food. True, there are typically other food sources available during the down times, but it can be a lot more work to acquire and may not provide balanced nutrition.

The fact that everything from California produce to hard drives are now delivered "just in time" is, as Dimitri points out, likely to be one of the big problems when things hit the fan.

I don't see how stockpiling was made possible by cheap oil. Giant monoculture, long distance shipping, etc, yes. But outside of the use of refrigeration I don't see the connection.

Anonymous said...

I live in the western US and land really isn't a problem, but water is crucial, yet sadly, there are bluegrass lawns everywhere and in my area few really large trees. They are too meesssy (Cue the nasel whine). I saw thousands and thousands of pounds of apples and grapes go to waste, as usual. For many years I have been involved with community gardening, with a minor measure of success. But I gave up after the one I want to tell you about.

I helped a group plant a small front yard in veggies and flowers and included hanging baskets and patio containers all on drip irrigation. It was in a not too good part of town and I figured the garden would soon be trashed. Not so! Cherry tomatoes hung from planting bags right by the sidewalk and along a walk where dozens of people weekly went to apply for relief for heating etc. The rest of the garden was super prolific and open to the picking by anyone. I even hung out signs saying "Free For The Picking" and hoped somthing would be used. Stuff went to rot as I couldn't get into town to do the picking all that often. Not a single cherry tomato was snarfed at a level even with adults chin as far as I could tell. I pulled the garden out early as I was worried about it attracting vermin. I couldn't even attract vandals!

On the other hand when I sit by a small stand in front of our house I can't keep up with demand. It's already picked and you can bet I price it accordingly! Americans are in for a really rude awakening.

Anonymous said...

The public is still in denial about the collapse that is happening all around us. In particular, they don't see that this is not a question of "lowering the level" of comfort but of a total change in what kind of comfort will be available and feasible. Just yesterday someone on TV was talking about "middle class" auto workers who make "30 or 40 thousand a year". With the current cost of living, these people are dirt poor.

The population is very ill-prepared for a change of paradigm. And the government, be it the present one or the incoming one, will try to maintain the fiction that this way of living can be continued.

Thus a parallel universe on TV and such will continue trading political gossip and discussing illusory fixes, while everyone else scrambles for a living. It is dangerous territory. At some point, the words "the country is ruined" will have to be uttered by someone in charge.

In my opinion, we ain't seen nothing yet.

catalystformagic said...

Ah....you guys all give good blog! Its conversations like these that I love...not these blogcelebs with 5000 followers and daily posts with hundreds of echo comments and ego stroking- and whilst microblogging is fun, and it was in fact @kcarruthers who tweeted this url leading me here, it does not offer depth and thread. Great read, good arguments. I grew up and lived in 3rd world Africa and now in Sydney, Australia, and have observed the truth of these observations firsthand.

catalystformagic said...

munAh....you guys all give good blog! Its conversations like these that I love...not these blogcelebs with 5000 followers and daily posts with hundreds of echo comments and ego stroking- and whilst microblogging is fun, and it was in fact @kcarruthers who tweeted this url leading me here, it does not offer depth and thread. Great read, good arguments. I grew up and lived in 3rd world Africa and now in Sydney, Australia, and have observed the truth of these observations firsthand.

Anonymous said...

An excellent presentation on the future of farming, from a series produced by Freedomain Radio. The entire series is highly recommendable.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02rvMwSlAu0

One important aspect is the renewed need to revert to labor-intensive activities, now that the equation time equals money is about to take on a new meaning.

Conchscooter said...

When the shit hits the fan I want to be among my own people, in my own ruined culture figuring out the next way to live. This world situation doesn't seem to be the right one to want to run from.

Anonymous said...

An excellent and utterly depressing analysis of the current economic (not just financial) situation, by Mike Whitney, a lucid analyst who for at least four years was preaching to nobody...

http://counterpunch.org/whitney12092008.html

This is an accurate backdrop to what Dmitry calls states 1 and 2 of the collapse, both well under way and overlapping, alas.

Anonymous said...

This is a link to the electronic text of Ivan Illich's book Energy and Equity, which remains an important essay on the subject. Have you got your bicycle yet?

http://clevercycles.com/energy_and_equity/