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.”