Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Movement for Involuntary Complexity

Afu Chan
Year after year, the Addbusters Magazine propagandizes “Buy Nothing Day”:
On Nov 25/26th we escape the mayhem and unease of the biggest shopping day in North America and put the breaks on rabid consumerism for 24 hours. Flash mobs, consumer fasts, mall sit-ins, community events, credit card-ups, whirly-marts and jams, jams, jams!
The idea, I suppose, is the usual sort of thing: make a stand, send a message, have something to talk and write about... and then go right back to consuming. On the day after “Buy Nothing Day,” for instance, you could buy a glossy copy of Addbusters Magazine at the check-out counter at Whole Foods. Last I checked, you could do so in the more liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, but not in the more conservative Brookline, Massachusetts right across the river. The cultural battle lines are clearly drawn.

You'd certainly want to prepare for “Buy Nothing Day” to survive it intact, by buying everything you need to make it through the day ahead of time. And then, of course, nobody could possibly expect you to actually buy nothing if that weren't convenient. Say you came down with diarrhea, and your medicine cabinet just happened to be flat out of Loperamide or Bismuth Subsalicylate. How inconvenient! Does Addbusters expect you to stay on the potty for 24 hours? Of course not! They are not monsters, they sell magazines with all sorts of cute stuff in them!

And I write books and publish a blog. And I find it helpful that so many people are aware that there is such a thing as Consumerism, with a big ‘C’, like the old Communism of yesteryear, because there is a sort of Politburo of the Consumerist Party, if you will, made of product developers and brand managers and advertisers and marketers. Instead of putting on red arm-bands, marching in lock-step, and saluting, you are branded with a logo, and exhibit your brand loyalty in a more subtle, understated way: in the way you spend your money. The reason I find it helpful that you are aware of this is that, in writing for this blog, I find it much easier, psychologically, to point out what's wrong rather than pretend that everything is all right, which is what I would have had to do if you had no clue.

The point is, we are running out of planet. We've changed the chemistry of the atmosphere to a point where the oceans are turning too acidic for coral and shellfish to grow. There are giant patches of floating plastic in mid-ocean which, as it degrades, is poisoning the entire oceanic food chain. We've already consumed all the high-grade, concentrated mineral ores and fossil fuel reserves, are now reduced to crushing tonnes of rock to get at the little bit that's left and exploiting marginal energy resources like tar sands, shale oil and gas and dirty brown coal. And if we keep going this way, then we will all surely die a horrible, suffocating, hot, toxic death.

If you are still with me, let's take a running jump at this Consumerist conspiracy, impale ourselves on the pikes of its protectors, slather them in our blood and gore, and hope that so doing demoralizes them to a point where they can no longer get up in the morning, look at themselves in the mirror, and go do their stupid planet-destroying job. Or, better yet, let's just chat amicably.

To start with, let's draw a line between Consumerism and just plain old consumption. Every living thing consumes something and then, after some series of biochemical processing steps, sheds it or excretes it. Sulfur-reducing bacteria consume sulfur, and produce foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide. But what sets these bacteria apart is that they do not depend on Chinese migrant workers to hand-roll little balls of sulfur for them to consume, packaged on polystyrene trays and shrink-wrapped in polyethylene film, and these bacteria do not have to drive to a large store to get their sulfur for a good price. They just grow where there happens to be some sulfur for them to reduce: in your own gut, for instance.

This pattern holds true for all life forms with the exception of us shoppers and, of course, our pets. Everything else eats what they kill, gather, or grow directly in or on top of, and they never pay for any of it. There is only one thing that we don't pay for, and that is oxygen, although there are now oxygen bars, where you can pay for that too, and I see a lot of people walking around with oxygen tanks. Your ability to stay alive depends on your ability to spend money (or for somebody else to spend money on your behalf). It doesn't have to be this way: people have lived, and some still live, getting what they need directly from nature, without paying for any of it, but they've become a rarity.

The normal pattern now is for all of our needs to be commercially mediated by a global, monolithic, totalitarian Consumerist state. Since this way of doing things is tremendously wasteful and inefficient, we are forced to spend all of our time slaving away to support the Consumerist state, leaving precious little time for consuming. And as resources run short, more and more of us are simply left out: our labor is not needed, and, with our spending ability evaporating, our options dwindle to a very few generally unpleasant ones.

There are far more efficient ways to live. By far the most efficient method is simply taking what you need in the most direct way possible: pluck something, and pop it in your mouth. There is no harvesting, shipping, storage, sorting, processing, packaging, marketing, licensing, distribution, point of sale, transportation or recycling of shipping materials involved. You chew it, and then you swallow it. Everything else happens automatically, while you are doing something else.

This hand-to-mouth technique is good, but it doesn't fulfill all of our complex physical and cultural needs: we need cooked food that includes some animal protein, clothing and shelter. These can also be obtained directly from nature, but that is where life gets complicated. It is one thing to buy a product; it is quite another to create one from scratch. It certainly isn't impossible—uneducated, illiterate tribes have provided for all of their own needs for thousands of years—but we have lost this ability.

Now, after many years of education and training, we feel lucky if we can just do our jobs, which involve providing for some else's needs, not our own or those of our families. And when we are not working, the best we can do is decide what we want to buy, or, the most difficult thing of all, decide what we want to buy and then refuse to buy it because we realize that we don't need it. But we do have needs, and these can only be met by picking a product, and paying for it.

There are a few alternatives, such as trash-picking and dumpster-diving, and these are viable for some people, but not everywhere and not all the time. Trash-picking and other forms of reuse have become increasingly difficult, because the manufacturers are onto us: now products are made to have a very finite useful life and to be unmaintainable. Even cars have become disposable: now they have bodies that are welded around the engine, and the engines themselves can no longer be overhauled.

Some people are looking beyond such humble adaptations. For example, there is the movement for Voluntary Simplicity, which now has an institute that has produced a number of research papers on the subject, has conducted public surveys, and counts among its members a number of luminaries from the Permaculture movement. Their web site does contain some practical documents that sketch out ways of reducing one's burn rate to around $30 a week. (I think that's called Voluntary Poverty.) They have asked me to write something for them; I suppose that this is it. The picture on the main page of their web site shows an idyllic, rural landscape with a smoothly paved road and mechanically mowed grass. There seem to be some bungalows beneath a stand of majestic trees. Golf, anyone?

To me, this picture expresses the essence of alternative consumer choice. You too can escape to a rural paradise where you can learn to grow all of your own food, and perhaps go on to teach classes on how to do it. All you need is half a million dollars to get started. The beauty of this plan is that you can do this and still remain middle-class, maintaining all of your cultural standards and predilections, such as mechanically mowed grass lawns and roads paved with tarmac, and do it all away from all the poor dark-skinned people.

Or, if you don't have half a million dollars, you can go native/feral, and avail yourself of consumer offerings catering to the native/feral movement, complete with Chinese-made loincloths and spear points and seasonal campgrounds where you can hone your wilderness survival skills.

My own favorite movement is called The Movement for Involuntary Complexity. The way it works is, nobody wants to join it, because it just doesn't sound at all pleasant. But then people find out that they are part of it anyway. Their resources are limited, they face a huge number of complicated problems, and they try to solve them the best they can. It is complicated to sort out your needs from your wants given all the commercial signals bombarding our senses. It is even more complicated to find a way to provide for these needs without becoming a slave to wage labor. Yet more complicated is convincing your family that this is all necessary, and appearing “normal” to the abnormal Consumerists all around you.

It will only get more complicated. As the economy continues to dwindle and more and more Consumerist fledgelings find themselves tossed out of the Consumerist nest, they will need convincing and coaching as well. Their transition to complexity will be about as involuntary as it gets. I think it's better to embrace Involuntary Complexity early on; after all, what choice do you have? You might as well just get on with it.


Sixbears said...

What to do? Attend to one's needs in a more direct manner, but just slightly ahead of everyone else? Must avoid being an outcast.

Take a radical leap and go live in the forest . . . or a sailboat?

Anonymous said...

Good point throughout. Funny and true!

It's like the Earth Hour trend when people turn off their lights for an hour in the year to feel good about themselves, before turning them on again to watch more TV. It falls under the increasingly tenuous excuse of 'raising awareness' which is another way of saying 'doing nothing but feeling like you are'.

I meet a lot of people who talk of wanting to be completely self-sufficient, but are unwilling to acknowledge the work and effort that goes into it. They just see self-sufficiency as throwing seeds in a garden on a sunny day and doing a little Disney-dance with the birds and squirrels while the crops magically grow all around them. They'll never try it, as they know deep inside that the dream would not match the reality. So instead in their denial they sign petitions and attend trendy protests. I note also how selective they are about their targets: technology companies are usually exempt from their anti-consummerist ire, as the laptops and MP3 players apparently are far too cool and precious for them to reject.

Jeff said...

I like it. No more pretending that we can hide in a fallout bunker for a week, then come back out and rebuild our old society. We're all mayans now.

martisco said...

Well at last! Getting around to the heart of the matter: the evolution of societal complexity is not something we control. It is inevitable. (Peak oilers who like to quote Joseph Tainter really haven't READ Tainter... whose conclusions were so final that even he himself recoiled from them.) We only control how quickly we individually back away from that rising complexity.

It would be an honest response, for those who aren't kollapsniks, to just say, "Look, every complex human society (like our own) has reached the point of diminishing returns. No matter how anyone tries to make them "sustainable," the inexorable forces win out and societies disappear from history. But let's see how much longer we can push the envelope." But no: what we get instead is, "Wow, things are getting so complicated and expensive! It's the fault of the president/ Congress / the Republicans / the Democrats / the Bible-thumpers / the scientists." No, it's the universe's fault. Or rather, the laws of physics.

But nobody's honest that way.

The question is, how do you be honest without being nihilistic? I think Mr Orlov does a pretty fair job of that.

Charlotte Homeschooler said...

Dmitry, I enjoyed your skewering of the Voluntary Simplicity people. If I ever set up an Institute for anything, remind me not to ask you to write a press release for it!
The obvious problem with ‘downshifting’ to a sustainable lifestyle is indeed that you need a pretty considerable wodge of cash to buy your land and set up your subsistence farm. Great for those people, but not too handy for the rest of us. Here in the UK, prices for bare arable land have trebled in a decade, and residential property has yet to crash. The Tory government has criminalized squatting, and recently announced its intention to speed up the abolition of the Welfare State, which was already due to be replaced from next year with the so-called ‘Universal Credit’, a highly conditional and probably very ungenerous benefit which will require the applicant to leap through ever-changing hoops, mostly involving forced unpaid labour, to qualify for any assistance. Failure to comply with any requirement will lead to a ‘sanction’,i.e.the loss of all benefits for a fixed period, during which the claimant will still have to comply with all these requirements in order to have their payments reinstated at the end of that fixed period, if they are still alive by then. So what will become of the newly destitute unemployed and underemployed? The problem is that the middle classes still do not know, by and large, that this is happening. It has been under-reported except in the left-wing Guardian, and most people will be unaware that the safety net has vanished until they happen to fall through it themselves. So the underclass equivalent of your ‘poor dark skinned people’ will have no sympathy from the bourgeois downshifters or from anyone else, which leaves them in rather a pickle. How will the early adopters of this involuntary simplicity fare in an environment which barely acknowledges their existence? How would one live, roofless, even if one had the skills to be a mountain man, in a prissy, overcrowded little country which is basically one giant Nimby-filled suburb? Does collapse have to go mainstream, by affecting a critical mass of people, before adaptation becomes socially acceptable and therefore possible? Is a genuine transition to simplicity possible when those who need it most are disorganised and alienated, and the official Transition movement is dominated by yuppies who think it’s enough to buy a Prius and remember to recycle the champagne bottles? Do I only ask totally unanswerable questions?! Help, we haven’t seen proper, hungry poverty here for sixty years and we’re struggling to believe it’s really happening!

Brian said...

The simple fact is that not every person can just go "live off the land." The land couldn't support it, even supposing most of us had any idea how to do that. It could work if, and only if, about 6 billion of us do the honorable thing, leaving enough land to go around for the few, hopefully knowledgable, survivors. Leaving out, of course, the impending climate-change doom, which will reduce land and sea resources even further. I guess more like 7 billion of us need to do the honorable thing.

And if we all run away from Consumerist society and build ourselves tiny cabins or eco-friendly yurts in the woods - not that I'm against this, I've done it myself - then the woods will become Consumerist society, for there we'll be, consuming the woods, chopping down all the trees to burn for heat, since we won't have natural gas and coal to burn.

Folks who talk about how so-called "primitive" tribes lived foraging/hunting lives for thousands of years tend not to mention that they did it in a world that had a quite sparse human population, and that as soon as someone had the bright idea to garden and farm, they generally jumped at it, since the opportunity to have more to eat on those chilly winter nights than a few wild onions, dried berries, and a half-rotted chunk of antelope flesh seemed awfully attractive to our ancestors.

This is all trending to one inevitable outcome; and while I would dearly love to satisfy my curiosity and stick around long enough to see what happens, I must presume, since I'm in my mid-50s, not rich, and not educated about what weeds are edible even in mid-winter in Upstate New York, that I'll be one of those taking the honorable way out.

Meanwhile, we build our off-grid cabins, install solar panels and wind turbines and battery banks, and grimly await industrial collapse, conveniently forgetting that without industrial society, we won't be able to repair our neat-o keen solar panels and wind turbines or replace our batteries. But that's fine, since we won't have much use for them then anyway, and so all our investment becomes just so much ugly, useless plastic/steel sculpture. And we'll wait, hoping against hope that climate change won't turn our ecobunker into the bottom of a new sea, or the middle of a new Sahara.

Luck seems to be the only thing a few of us will be able to count on.

Terrace said...

"I must presume, since I'm in my mid-50s, not rich, and not educated about what weeds are edible even in mid-winter in Upstate New York, that I'll be one of those taking the honorable way out."

Why not ask your local Iroquois, they managed to do it for thousands of years...

Puzzler said...

Terrace, re your suggestion to ask your local Iroquois:

Chances are the Noble Savages are living in involuntary grinding poverty and/or dependent on casinos gulping electricity to flash the lights and spin the gambling devices to strip-mine surplus dollars.

Brian, re 6 or 7 billion people doing the "right thing" -- they won't have to. The thing will do them.

Jerry McManus said...

I enjoy putting out a handful of sunflower seeds on my windowsill in the morning for the local songbirds.

Their lives are spectacularly un-complicated:

- Eat food
- Avoid being eaten
- Make more songbirds

They generally don't concern themselves with further complexities, such as where the food comes from or what will happen when it is gone, other than occasionally bickering over who gets to eat first. I assume this is because anything more complicated would simply be a waste of precious life sustaining energy.

They have taught me much, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Phil said...

Freakin' genius and hilarious. Involuntary complexity. Feel the burn, baby!

Don Stewart said...

I am not a 'permaculture luminary', but I will try to give a permaculture perspective to the discussion. For a lot more detail, I suggest anyone interested read Peter Bane's just published book Garden Farming for Town and Country.

Permaculture is about increased self-reliance--not self-sufficiency. Very few permaculture people advocate pure self-sufficiency because it is basically impossible. It is, however, possible to live a life where one is largely self-sufficient in certain key elements such as food, shelter, and water on very little land. Bane shows how to do that in a temperate zone, relatively well-watered climate. The deserts, the tropics, and the seasonally dry areas need different methods.

I think it is a mistake to characterize Bane's methods as 'simple'. For example, he advocates a very large diversity of plants and animals and insects and soil dwellers on your little garden. This kind of ecosystem is extraordinarily complex and human guidance of that system for the benefit of humans requires a lot of skill and knowledge. If you aspire to such a life, you had best get started right now because there is an awful lot to learn and ecosystems are not built in a day.

Likewise, the Garden Farming community within which your Garden Farm will be embedded is a complex social structure which requires care and feeding. Several scientists have recently advocated for 'group selection' in opposition to 'selfish genes' as the primary determinant of which humans live and which die. So it is best to get associated with a well-functioning group. Many think that our big brains were created not to play video games but to manage the complexities of group behavior.

As for requiring half a million dollars to get started, Bane didn't have that kind of money, and he gives case studies of people who started with very little. But you are going to have to start with some poor land and build fertility over a few years. That isn't a simple task either.

Whether you call the lifestyle 'simple' or 'complex' depends on your point of view. Bane makes the point that 'you have to harvest the crop when it is ready...or something else will harvest the crop while you dither'. So...you have to get out there and harvest when Mother Nature provides and you have to preserve the harvest. For preservation, I recommend The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

Will your life be simple if you do all these things? I would rather describe it as a Life in Flow--you are deeply involved in what you are doing and it is stretching your skills and knowledge and imagination. It isn't usually about laying in the grass watching the clouds.

Don Stewart

Brian said...

@ Terrace,

Ah, yes, I'll ask the Noble Savage for help. Of course, back before the European invasion the Iroquois joined up with other tribes to invade the Ohio River Valley for new hunting grounds, pushing out the indigenous tribes like the Quapaw and Ofo. That certainly sounds sustainable.

Unfortunately, the descendants of those Iroquois that were not wiped out by the European invaders, or other tribes, seem to be quite busy running casinos in Niagara Falls, Seneca, and Buffalo. Something tells me they may not be up on their hunting-gathering skills these days.

forrest said...

Just say "No!" to oversimplification!

[I'm afraid I've been saying that for years, in public domain places, so my chances of getting a lawyer to intimidate anyone out of saying it themselves are slim. $1 to me, anytime you find it applicable, would be nice... but I'll just purr if I see more people start following it!]

The Indians, many of them, were farming, not necessarily in ways that incoming Europeans recognized. The drought-resistance, nourishing grass they planted all over San Diego County is now extinct, due to the powerful digestive tracts of the ruminants said Europeans imported, overjoyed to find that Nature had provided them such bountiful meadows, scornful of the senseless objections of the local savages...

I think that "the honorable way out" can take care of itself, thank you. Probably in some way I would not have chosen, myself, but that's part of the suspense. Has there ever been a society that simply told its condemned: "You'll see when the time comes"? But isn't that the scenario we see looming?

BirthWyse said...

Hi Senor Orlov,

Would you mind linking to the 30$ per week burn rate article? I'm curious what methods they suggest to get down to that level.


Shadowfax said...

I suggest moving unto a sailboat at dockside or anchor.After a few months you will not be able to go back to apartment or house living.(they will seem like prisons)This will simplifiy thingsand be cheaper.Next step is when you lose the land job and have to go sailing cuz you can't pay the moorage.
Simple!(seems to be my involuntary plan)

Don Stewart said...

A follow up (with tongue slightly in cheek) to the supposed expense of adopting the Permaculture solution.

In Peter Bane's book, you will find text and photographic depictions of the Old 99 farm on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario. A middle aged man became concerned about Peak Oil and similar problems several years ago and bought the land and started the farm. But he is getting older and needs someone to pass the farm along to. One of his daughters has no interest. The other is moderately interested and is unmarried.

Now, anyone who remembers bedtime stories knows that when the King had a daughter to marry off, he advertises the fact that any prince who can perform a dangerous and difficult feat will have his daughter's hand in marriage and inherit the Kingdom.

So...I suggest that you study up on real Magic (the kind you use to slay dragons--not the wimpy version espoused by John Michael Greer) and go in search of the daughter's hand in marriage--and inheritance of the farm.

A farm doesn't actually sail very well, but you ARE close to Lake Ontario so this might be a very good hedge. You have a land option and a sea option. And it doesn't cost a fortune--you just have to be good at Magic and good at wooing heiresses.

Don Stewart

Unknown said...

Dmitry, your point about purchasing a parcel of real estate for a half-million dollars is close to spot on.

Nevertheless, a moderate-sized family can become nearly self-sufficient on many a 5 acre tract in the States with good manure and replacement methods. One problem is our systems of taxation are geared primarily toward taxing productivity (wages), and less toward taxing unproductive (or under-productive) property. The very means of acquiring property (through labor) are made more difficult, while the cost of land is made artificially high.

This can be easily solved by subjecting unused or underutilized land to higher rates of taxation. God made land for man to live on and use, not to be used in a game of speculation (wait for the next government road to be built, oil discovery, or expansion of nearby city or town before you sell your land for a tidy profit - a lazy man’s way of getting money from his neighbor by doing nothing; called “economic rent” by classical economists). By failing to tax underused land, the government once again subsidizes the laziness of the rich.

In my state (Louisiana), we have vast tracts of land that are subject to a very low level of property tax (the federal government even pays landowners for keeping their land underutilized), whilst wages are subject to some of the highest tax rates imposed by a state. All while spending on education and infrastructure is cut drastically.

I think everything we need to be self-sustaining is right before us. We just have to reduce our burn rate, and land needs to be well distributed.

“I am well aware that the word ‘property’ has been defiled in our time by the corruption of the greedy capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property; because they are enemies of their own limitations.... It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.”
G.K. Chesterton


Don Stewart said...

I would like to add one more angle to what Theodore Vicknair said.

If you look at the real estate listings where I live you will see very large tracts (several hundred acres) which are described as 'hunting preserves'. While I have nothing against hunting, what these really are are large tracts of potentially quite productive land that has been withdrawn from use by very rich people who can afford to keep it idle. It is taxed at favorable rates, which makes it cheap for them to just keep it for the occasional hunt.

Don Stewart

Don Stewart said...

For a good idea about what is possible in terms of Permaculture on a budget, see this video with Peter Bane showing photos of the six year development of his property just outside Bloomington, Indiana.


Don Stewart

Justin said...

Grow the fuck up and drop the cash on a book about edible plants in your local ecology.


Tim said...

The half mil idea is totally off the mark. I've found land for less than $1k an acre in upstate NY, well isolated by state forest. If you don't get greedy and buy more land than you can reasonably deal with, you can be in a shack for less than $100k that covers your basic needs, or you can start from scratch with a trailer and a well for less than $40k. So if you can get $5-15k together you can buy a place with someone else's soon to be worthless money and set it up...

I'm buying an existing passive solar house with 8 acres... but I've already done off-grid solar power up here, and with existing credits and rebates you can get to a zero energy house in 2 years with basically no money (but a lot of sweat equity.) My Irish ancestors had population densities far higher than we'd need to have for NY state to sustain itself on food even at a primitive level of technology (just try to stay away from the same strains of potatoes as everyone else... ;)

Also, speaking as someone born in Manhattan and raised in NYC, I can say that with enough trial and error you will get to the point where you can successfully hunt in a few years if you start now.

As for the uselessness of power... well I guess that depends on what you are using it for. I think the solar power I use is very productive when I'm using a chop saw or a mill or a welder. Extremely handy if no one else has one also. And I expect my solar to last for at least 30 years. Wind turbines will be doable locally pretty much forever if you've got metal working tools.

One of the important things to realize is that there isn't an expert out there who can write a book to get you to do all of these things. Doing is learning.

Theodore Vicknair said...

Tim, you make some important points. But there is a guy that has published a lot of what one needs to start an off-grid cabin. His name is LaMar Alexander and his site is www.simplesolarhomesteading.com. His homesteading e-books are very reasonably priced; about $5 as I recall. A very valuable resource for do-it-yourself off-the-gridders.

neroden@gmail said...

Speaking of upstate NY, the studies done at Cornell say that this area could go back to feeding itself and exporting a surplus for others, pretty quickly.

That surplus wouldn't be *nearly* enough to feed NYC and Long Island, however....