It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Think Local, Act Global

The Archdruid (he really does seem to be the hierophant of some minor religion but you wouldn't know it from the way he writes) actually seems headed toward some constructive ideas this week rather than just doomsterizing, which he is very good at. Along the way, he presents about the most cogent case for radical localization that I've seen.

I still don't buy it. A radical globalization component is also needed, difficult though it may be. In the end our problems are so tightly coupled that there is only one problem: can we learn how to have a modern civilized society that can be sustained, or not? Without a global governance layer, I think not. Without functioning feedback loops from the local to the global, I can't see how the local scheme can add up to anything but collapse. The floaty part of the boat can't float if the sinky part is sinking, and that's all there is to it.

But it's good stuff, very much worth a read anyway.


Tom Fiddaman said...

I don't buy it either. It's not a stable strategy; the more it works, the stronger the incentive for some locales to defect.

S said...

I convince my tiny corner of society to use less resources ... and it makes it cheaper for another corner to waste those resources. I do it, but it's not very satisfying!

manuelg said...

TL;DR Sorry to use your comments section to work through my thoughts.

First, I agree that people interested in sustainability should not walk away from global thinking or political action. Doing so would be a huge gift to the morally bankrupt who are optimizing for the short term.

But, let me push back, and take Archdruid's argument to the extreme.

Consider a friendly group - the progressive sustainable socialist democrats. If I could wave a magic wand, more than collective gains or planetary sustainability gains, I would wish for them personal fulfillment.

Michael Tobis really had something with the idea of (paraphrased, maybe badly, sorry):

"If a group of people started talking about 'Fulfillment for all; supplied at a sustainable rate of use of natural resources', and refused to humor distracting chatter about historical economic and political intermediary concepts, real work could be accomplished."

Because, when you use the constructs of economics and politics, the Mavens of Unsustainability have already won.

Because, economics and politics *assumes* the stability of the particular market or government is the primary goal. All other goals are second to stability. Short term stability, mind you. Sustainability has to duke it out among all other competing goals; only short term stability of the economic or governmental construct has a privileged status.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would wish for this friendly group, the progressive sustainable socialist democrats, to spend time with their significant others, their children and friends, to meditate to expand their internal freedoms of their internal disposition. Even before wishing for collective gains or planetary sustainability gains.

When you dispose of the economic constructs, the pressing issue of *lack* dissipates, the drive to *consume* dissipates. The energy to then achieve collective gains or planetary sustainability gains becomes embarrassingly bountiful.

The collective gains or planetary sustainability gains come into being, because of the natural disposition towards bountiful care. This natural disposition can only be suppressed in an atmosphere where the assumption of zero-sum thinking and the assumption of tight constraints on sources of value are beaten into heads incessantly, with no rest to consider if these assumptions are valid or useful.

[OK, now my thinking gets even more mushy, and I cannot guarantee an adequate thread of argument.]

Society based on collectives like Epicurus' garden - people actively concerned with human fulfilment with great care to rid selves of manic anxieties. Epicurus' garden, unlike modern consumer epicureans, would be called "spartan" compared to consumerism informed life-styles. It would not hold much attraction to most people. Does a moral argument have to proceed first? Humans have more or less dispensed with slavery, and that took millennia. Because of climate disruption, does this mean population densities like pre-contact Native American tribes? (using California as an example, instead of 37mil today a population of 500,000. a staggering loss. how would this play out? I am not aware of a plausible example time-line of events from today's current population to a population consistent with climate disruption in the next 200 years.)

Would this population crash spur on the moral argument? To arrive at a middle ground? Would this viewpoint (contemplation of population crashes) allow a short-circuit to distracting economic and political issues?

I have no faith in violent or authoritative social movements to gain sustainability - it would just lead to more of the same jive, and an acceleration of waste and poisoning of human value. That is why I think the moral argument has to come first - but I fret of the slowness of moral societal change.

Michael Tobis said...

Moe, I think of economics as a tool. We do not have time to reorganize ourselves in any sort of Star Trek post-money way (even if you convince me that is a good idea). What I take from our joint aphorism is that we should refuse to think of money as a collective goal: as such it is devoid of meaning.

I don't think it will go away any time soon as an individual goal, though of course I agree that we should put it into perspective as healthy individuals as well.

I don't think of myself as a socialist, for what it's worth. I think of myself as a pragmatist, based on the perspective of collective utility (or Buddhism if you prefer, the goal being to maximize joy and minimize suffering for all.)

What I think we ought to do is restate and reformulate economics, not to abandon it. One way to maximize joy is to minimize constraints on free choice. The way to do that is to make destructive things difficult and constructive things appealing, not to force people to do some things and give up others. Subsidies and penalties using money are a good way to do this.

There is a pretty compelling proof, given a common set of assumptions, that any subsidy or penalty is suboptimal in total wealth. Many of the assumptions that go into this argument are wrong, including the idea that total wealth is the social utilitarian optimum.

'nuff said for now. I still like your formulation of my formulation, but I think you go further with it than I am willing to.

In the end, money is a fiction we use for managing collective behavior. We have managed to maximize money. That is, we have deluded ourselves into valuing the convenient fiction at a collective level as well as at an individual level. As individuals, money is not going to vanish.

Collectively, we need a new system overlaid on the old system. If you look at how digital technology has progressed you can see many models of how this can work. We don't need to abandon the old system and in fact we can't. We just need to stop taking its fictions so damned seriously.

Dan Olner said...

JMG seems to be conflating complexity and 'grandoise schemes'; I'm puzzled that the solution should be as simple as de-complexifying. Many of nature's most successful species have very complex self-organised structures; complexity itself is no barrier to survival, and often offers solid survival advantages. Plus, humans are built for utilising adaptive social complexity. That's where language came from.

And there's the localist instinctive hatred of economies of scale: something we are definitely, definitely going to need in the coming years.

Neven said...

John Michael Greer writes excellent articles on his blog. I haven't had time to read up there, but I did for quite a few months and it didn't make me stupider. His latest book The Ecotechnic Future is standing on a bookshelf right next to me, waiting for me to pick it up and read it.

The only thing that surprised me is that in a short discussion with him he stated that he expects that AGW won't be much of a problem. His article was about how computers and the internet will slowly disappear due to the peaking of resources. I said that we would be truly f**ked then because we need this technology for mitigating and adapting to the consequences of AGW.

I think the Archdruid thinks AGW won't be catastrophic because this would mess up his theories, but JMG is infinitely smarter than I am, so I could very well be wrong on this point. It was just an impression I got.