Saturday, June 18, 2011

The (Worldwide?) Peak of Human Resources

In my last post, I discussed the fallen tendency of some of us humans to conduct ourselves as predators and to regard all the rest of humanity as prey. I also briefly described how this tendency has shaped the evolution of industrial society. Another way of framing this predator-prey relationship is that to the wealthiest members of society, the global official economy over which they preside exists for one purpose, namely their own personal enrichment. Just as that economy requires an ever-expanding supply of material resources in order to generate ever-increasing wealth, so it requires an ever-expanding supply of human capital in order to generate ever-increasing wealth for its elites. The Hubbert Peak of the rate of extraction of various non-human resources is now appearing as a threat to the survival of the economy. I'd like to suggest the existence of a Hubbert Peak of the rate of exploitation of “human resources” as well, and that this poses a further threat to the owners of our present economy, in addition to the Hubbert Peaks of use of other resources. I will present evidence that suggests that we (at least in the First World) are already “past Peak” with regard to human resources. As one version of a favorite song of mine says,

Well, there's a change in the wind, you know the signs don't lie,

Such a strange feelin' and I don't know why it's takin'

such a long time;

Backyard people and they work all day,

Day gets wasted, it's safe to say that they're tastin'

to make the words rhyme...

First, it should be mentioned that Hubbert depletion analysis has been applied not only to inanimate resources, but to biological resources that are exploited at rates beyond their natural rates of regeneration and renewal. One such analysis is “Price Trends Over A Complete Hubbert Cycle: The Case of the American Whaling Industry in 19th Century” by Ugo Bardi, a professor at the University of Firenze in Italy and author of the blog, Cassandra's Legacy. Those who study the history of whaling in the 19th century will find an interesting perspective among whalers and those who depended on the whaling industry, namely, a failure to recognize or acknowledge the effects of overfishing and exploitation of whales at a nonrenewable rate. The closest anyone seems to have come to an acknowledgement of this reality is found in a book published in 1878 by Alexander Starbuck who acknowledged that declining production of whale fisheries was due to “an increase of consumption beyond the power of the fishery to supply.” However, like apologists for our present oil industry who blame “aboveground factors” for production constraints, Mr. Starbuck cited “the scarcity and shyness of whales” as a contributing factor in fishery production decline.

Since there are limits to the maximal sustainable rate of exploitation of non-human biological resources, it stands to reason that there is a limit to the maximal sustainable rate of exploitation of human beings as well. Breaching this limit would cause the breakdown of an industrial society even if that society was well-supplied with all other production inputs. Moreover, there would be increasingly severe signs and symptoms of breakdown as the society was driven further and further beyond sustainable rates of exploitation of its members. Finally, it would not be surprising to see the elites at the head of such a society rationalize and refuse to acknowledge the true meaning of these signs and symptoms.

Are there modern societies in which we can see this breakdown taking place? (Is the Pope Catholic?) A better question might be, “Which modern country might best serve as a poster child for the effects of unsustainable exploitation of its human capital?” There are many contenders for this doubtful honor, but today I'd like to focus on Japan – not because I believe that country is worse than, say, the United States, but because the capitalists of that country have created trends which most of the industrial world has been obliged to follow. First, we need to look briefly at the history of Japan from the end of World War Two onward.

The end of the war left Japan both shattered and occupied. The United States provided approximately $18.6 billion in aid, both under the Marshall Plan and other outlays, for the rebuilding of nations whose infrastructure and economy had been damaged by the war. Japan received $2.44 billion. (Total U.S. expenditures from 1945 to 1953 amounted to $44.3 billion.) (Source: Wikipedia, Marshall Plan.) Yet even with American aid, life was very hard for the majority of Japanese citizens just after the war. Their suffering and privation motivated them to quickly fashion an economy which would guarantee robust prosperity for the nation.

Many growth strategies were employed both by the Japanese government and the leaders of its most powerful financial and industrial sectors. While some of these strategies focused on protecting Japanese domestic markets from foreign competition, others focused on building Japan into an industrial powerhouse. One aspect of the building of that powerhouse is of particular interest – namely, the fostering of a certain kind of relationship between the managers of large corporations and the majority of their employees. This relationship was the outgrowth of the Japanese Production Management system (JPM) which has given the world such concepts as TQM (Total Quality Management), JIT (Just-In-Time Manufacturing). SCM (Supply Chain Management), Kaizen, (embodying, among other things, “lean manufacturing”), Zero Defects and Quality Circles. (One other thing to note: although these ideas came to full implementation in Japan, many of these ideas were introduced to Japan by American business and economic teachers such as W. Edwards Deming . This is rather like communism, which was not invented by Russians, yet was wholeheartedly adopted by Russia for several nauseating decades.)

The essence of many of these elements of JPM was to eliminate as much “waste” as possible from the manufacturing process. As JPM spread to other sectors of the Japanese economy, this same focus on “eliminating waste” spread too. The aim of kaizen was continuous improvement of a business process. The measure of “continuous improvement” was continuous growth of profits and continuous reduction of operating expenses. Industry leaders fostered a culture in which workers supported cost cutting and continuous process improvement, identifying fully with the goals of management. This led to situations in which workers on a line assembling car engine parts might have only two minutes allotted per car and no spare time allowed, thus forcing a typical worker to assemble engine parts for 250 cars every five hundred minutes. In such a factory, the production method would involve synchronized production (JIT, no pool of parts and no waste), value organization (to identify the spare time each worker had after one assembly operation in order to identify “waste time”), and supplement production (obtaining the minimum necessary parts from suppliers and subcontractors in order to reduce stock). (Source: “Karoshi – Death From Overwork: Occupational Health Consequences of the Japanese Production Management,” Katsuo Nishiyama and Jeffrey V. Johnson.)

This frenzied work environment was not confined to blue collar occupations, but spread through the ranks of lower and mid-level management as well, giving rise to the salaryman as a cultural icon. It has also given rise to Karoshi (death from overwork), a medical phenomenon of epidemic proportions, along with the related phenomenon of Karo-jisatu (suicide from overwork). Yet this work environment has been reinforced through many means, including identification with traditional Japanese religious and cultural values; unions that have been thoroughly co-opted by management; rigorous standardized schooling with heavy emphasis on conformity, rote memorization and high-stakes, standardized tests, and mass media which promotes the idea of the salaryman as a modern-day samurai contending on behalf of his employer. (As one television commercial put it, “Can you fight 24 hours for your corporation?”)

(To those of you who are not Japanese and who have no knowledge of Japanese culture, I ask: does any of this look familiar? Can you see these things happening in your own societies? Karoshi may soon be coming to a town near you.)

Though this culture has taken a heavy toll on Japan, the government, along with leaders of business and industry, have been extremely reluctant to acknowledge that toll. (What? You're telling me that stress kills people? Aw, come on! “Not all scientists would agree with you.”) But now there are signs that the society which has been built on this culture is starting to break down. The origin of the breakdown is among the Japanese youth, who see their parents being dehumanized and worked to death and who are saying to themselves that they refuse to become like their parents. They are angered by their parents' unrequited sacrifices and they are choosing to opt out of the system.

The opting-out takes a number of different forms. There are the freeters, young people who deliberately choose low-paying part-time jobs so that they can have control over their lives instead of running in an ever-accelerating corporate hamster wheel. There are also the hikikomori, youth who have been damaged by a high-stakes schooling system and who are unable to face the thought of going out into a predatory world without any social support system. There is the larger movement of the datsusara, people who quit work as salarymen or office women in order to launch careers that are more in line with their values.

These people are a threat to the dominant economy, in large part because they represent lost profits (or, to put it differently, they are escaped prey). They have caught the attention of the leadership of Japan, one of whose members suggested not too long ago that all freeters should be forced to join the Japanese Self-Defense Force and go to Iraq. Yet they are part of a phenomenon which is arising in many different countries. As globalization and uber-capitalism have swept the globe, youth who are now coming of age (along with not a few older people) are also coming to realize that the society created by their masters holds nothing for them, and they increasingly feel no obligation to that society. They are dropping out of their respective societies – much as air leaks slowly out of even perfectly good tires on a hot day. The trick is to escape without losing one's mind in the process.


  1. Karoshi – Death From Overwork: Occupational Health Consequences of the Japanese Production Management,” 4 February 1997, Katsuo Nishiyama and Jeffrey V. Johnson.

  2. The Japanese 'Death by Overwork' Phenomenon,” 25 July 2007, Josefine Cole.

  3. Karoshi (Work to Death) in Japan,” 2008, Atsuko Kanai.

  4. Workplace Stress: A Collective Bargaining Issue,” 2002, Anne-Marie Mureau.

  5. The Impact of Globalization on Post World War II Japan,” 2 April 2010, Phillip Luu.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Danger Of Telegraphing Your Punches

As some long-time readers of mine may have noticed, my blogging has undergone a bit of a hiatus over the last year. This was due to my working two jobs, one of which involves teaching. The demands of the two jobs left very little time for anything more than scattered, brief commentary on this blog. Now, thankfully, I am down to just one job. Though the pay is significantly less than before, the peace of mind is significantly greater.

At the beginning of my (partial) silence, my writing was strongly focused on the subject of resilient neighborhoods, including topics such as the elements of a neighborhood that provide for resilience in the face of economic contraction and energy descent, as well as steps for building neighborhood resilience. Overwhelming busyness prevented me from exploring these themes further, but I was able to keep up with the writings of others who were exploring these topics, in particular, Joanne Poyourow, a writer active in the U.S. branch of the Transition movement. She wrote a five-part series of articles on economic resilience as applied to local communities, as well as a separate post on her own blog, titled, “Resilience: A View From The Transition Movement.”

Her articles and the suggestions contained therein were both good and practical. Yet as I read what she had to say, along with reading the daily news of what was being done to our nation and our world by the holders of concentrated wealth and power, I found myself having second thoughts, even as I reconsidered my own focus and emphasis. It seemed that Joanne had fallen victim to a blind spot which seems typical among many activists concerned with economic contraction and energy descent. I will attempt to point out that blind spot now, along with what I believe to be the issues that must be faced by ordinary people seeking to adapt to our present times.

I'll start with a quote from Gale Warnings, a blog written by Stormchild. The quote reads in part, “...most of us spend our lives as prey, economically and psychologically. Awareness is the key to understanding this; but once we understand it, we may transcend it, choosing, when we can, to be neither prey nor predator.” The problem people have faced almost from the outset is simply this: the fallen tendency for some humans to conduct themselves as predators and to regard all of their fellow humans as prey. There is a long history of predator-prey relationships across societal and geopolitical scales, culminating in the predation of the entire world by the Anglo, American and European empires.

As I see it, three trends have been at work in the world over the last two hundred years or so. The first trend is the tendency toward the concentration of the power and wealth of societies – particularly in the West – in the hands of an ever-diminishing number of master predators who are able to out-compete their fellows for prey, and who eventually succeed in laying claim to every available bite of prey. The second trend is the fight for freedom waged by the prey against their predators. During the 20th century, this fight for freedom was ostensibly successful in many parts of the globe and many sectors of American society. Several countries were able for a time to escape from being banana republics or something similar, and many members of ethnic minority groups in the United States suddenly had wonderful doors of opportunity opened for them. While this did indeed upset the elites at the head of fading European empires or the expanding American empire, this fight for freedom was tolerated somewhat, because the continual expansion of the global industrial economy was able to absorb the exponentially expanding appetites of these elites even as they lost some of their prey to freedom. (Of course, between the overthrow of colonialism and the gains of the civil rights movements in the 1960's and now, the elites were able to subtly erase nearly all civil rights gains and to recapture a very large proportion of escaped prey, but that's a subject for another time.)

The third trend should concern us all very much, because it is the trend at work right now. I said that the appetites of the elites are exponential. What I really mean is that the expression and manifestation of those appetites is exponential. Today they want one bite of prey. Tomorrow, they will want e bites. The next day, they will want en slices, where n is an integer greater than 1. As long as the economy controlled by these elites grows at a rate greater than en, they can tolerate the escape of a few prey from their grip. But what if the economy should begin to contract because of the decline of its resource base and the inability of the earth to absorb any more of the waste products of that economy?

That is the situation we face now. The well has run dry. The resource base of the global economy is drying up, the global economy is contracting, and no one can do a thing to stop it. When governments and wealthy people at the top of society see these things unfolding, their response and priorities are very different from the responses and priorities of ordinary people who see these things unfolding. We live and function in an economy in which the notional “wealth” held by the largest holders of concentrated wealth and power actually consist of relationships of dependence which they have established with the vast majority of the rest of us through trickery and force. In other words, they have made us to depend on them for nearly every necessity of life, which they are willing to give to us in exchange for our labors. The surplus of those labors is creamed off for themselves, leaving almost nothing for us to enjoy. And the “necessities” which are given to us in return for our labors are very tightly rationed, or in increasing cases are mere junk, froth and “empty calories” disguised as necessities.

One needn't look far to see examples of what I am talking about. How about having to pay thousands of dollars a year for “health insurance” which does not actually guarantee that you will be able to see the doctor you need, let alone avoid medical bankruptcy should you become seriously sick? How about not being able to get from point A to point B without driving a new car that costs tens of thousands of dollars, forcing you to go into debt just to get around? How about being beholden to private utilities, including privatized water and sewer services?

Every relationship of dependence on our formal, official economy is a claim on the fruits of your labor – whether it's an interest-bearing debt you owe because of the cost of buying a house, a car or an education; or whether it's the percentage of “market share” of which your purchasing decisions comprise a part; or whether it is the tax burden imposed on you as an ordinary citizen as part of your government's promise to bail out rich financial institutions. These claims make up a large part of the notional “wealth” of the predators at the top of our society.

Many of us now see that the formal economy is in trouble, and that it can no longer deliver the necessities it promises, and we are talking among ourselves, making plans, publishing on the Internet, trying to start movements, trying to warn and influence the policy makers at the helm of society. But the predators at the top see these suggestions and movements as threats to their wealth. For even if we all cooperatively fashion a society that is equitable and suited to energy descent, this means the loss of the power of the elites. If on the other hand, we ordinary people begin to break free from the system on which we depend – if we begin to fashion survivable, sustainable alternatives to the system – we will be regarded as escaped prey by predators who can no longer count on an expanding economy to satisfy their ever-expanding appetites.

(Here I must insert a quote I discovered this last week from a talk given by John Taylor Gatto to the 11th Annual International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) in 2003. In his talk he described how the elites of our society see themselves – not as conspirators, but rather, “When you bought your last package of chicken parts, or slabs of beef, or a side of salmon, did you think you were participating in a conspiracy against the lives of these animals? It's a ridiculous idea, isn't it? Q.E.D. You and I are the chickens, the beef and the fish.” I don't know that I believe this isn't a conspiracy, but I thought his quote about chicken, beef and fish was right on.)

If you find ways of meeting your needs outside the system and you are unwise enough to publicize them, I see one of three things happening to you. First, what you are doing may be declared illegal, even though before you opened your mouth, it was perfectly legit. The second and third possibilities are especially relevant if what you do involves networking with others or creating alternative societal arrangements. If you form alternative networks for providing services or necessities to people apart from the dominant system, there is the possibility that global uber-capitalists may drive you out of business by flooding their perceived “market” with low-cost alternatives to your network. This highlights something we all need to realize about the wealthiest members of the official economy, namely, that although they are sitting on unholy amounts of claims on wealth which they call “capital,” they are always trying to grow the size of their “capital.” So their capital “chases yield” – in other words, the super rich are always looking for some market they can corner via strategic investing in order to increase their claims on the rest of us while deepening our enslavement to them. (This is why it is so hard to become an entrepreneur or small businessman in the United States nowadays.) The third thing that may happen is that if there is a political element to your alternative social arrangement – if it takes on the character of a movement – you will be joined by infiltrators and ersatz “reformers” claiming to “be working within the system to try to change the system,” and they will co-opt your movement and derail it.

In other words, if you seek to escape from our present economic system because you see that it is crumbling, you will become an offense to the masters of that system, because they are predators and you have just become escaped prey. Now that their system is shrinking, they grudge the loss of any prey, and they will do all they can to make sure their appetites are satisfied at your expense. Under such circumstances, does it make sense to openly talk and write about establishing “Transition Networks,” or to openly talk and write about establishing local currencies and barter arrangements, or to disclose – on the Internet, for all the world to see – any other suggestions for community action and community resilience? Jeff Vail and John Robb have written about the concept of “open source insurgency” as an outcome of the efforts of ordinary people to break free from predatory systems. I admit that I need to study in more detail exactly what they mean by “open source insurgency,” but I think it is now becoming increasingly unwise to publicize many of the strategies people might use to make themselves and their localities more resilient. I think it would be better for people to discuss and plan their strategies for resilience in face-to-face conversations with people they can trust. I also think it is far past time for people to take a step back from technology and to rediscover methods of communication and collaboration that don't depend on the Web and that are less vulnerable to eavesdropping. This may mean that “neighborhood resilience” takes on a multicolored hue, that there arises a huge variety of means by which various neighborhoods and groups of people in cooperation with each other become “resilient.”