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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Unplugged

I've written in the past about how a move toward local subsistence, gift and barter economies, although it might mean a significant increase in quality of life for many, would also likely involve a steep decline in GDP.

Matthew Claxton of Little Iguanodon, something of a science fiction author in his own right, sends me a link to this beautiful story, in the form of the transcript from a video newscast in the year 2030.

Anchor: Touting their movement as a combination of the economic theories of Mahatma Gandhi and the political science of Buckminster Fuller the Unplugged have now reduced the GDP of the United States of America by 20% over their 15 year programme.

The lifestyle is explained in an interview with an Unplugger named Jack Huston:

Jack: Well, first we've got to cover briefly how Unplugging works. The core of the theory is that we can all live off the interest generated by our savings, or the profits from our investments, if we possess enough capital - and generations of Capitalists have dreamed of "getting off at the top" - making enough money to cash out of the workplace and live as they like for the rest of their lives.

Presenter: But what does that have to do with living in a housing pod in the middle of Oregon?

Jack: Well, it comes down to the nature of capital. Wealth stored as dollars was essentially a share in America's national economy - a credit note backed by the US Government. But Buckminster Fuller showed us that wealth-as-money was a specialized subset of Wealth - the ability to sustain life.

To "get off at the top" requires millions and millions of dollars of stored wealth. Exactly how much depends on your lifestyle and rate of return, but it's a lot of money, and it's volatile depending on economic conditions. A crash can wipe out your capital base and leave you helpless, because all you had was shares in a machine.

So we Unpluggers found a new way to unplug: an independent life-support infrastructure and financial archtecture - a society within society - which allowed anybody who wanted to "buy out" to "buy out at the bottom" rather than "buying out at the top."

If you are willing to live as an Unplugger does, your cost to buy out is only around three months of wages for a factory worker, the price of a used car. You never need to "work" again, although there are plenty of life support activities to keep you busy, and a lot of basic research and science to do. Unplugging is not an off-the-shelf solution, it's a research career!

Presenter: So tell us about your house over here? It looks pretty weird!

Jack: Unpluggers don't have our own manufacturing facilities for these yet, so we shop them out to fabs in Turkey. The shell is aluminium and aerogel, 50% collector panels, 12 volt appliance wiring, super-insulated windows with liquid crystal shades for internal temperature control. Heat comes from either a wood stove or a peltier solid state heat pump running off ground heat, depending on how much power we need. Cooling, similarly. We cook in the solar oven on the side sometimes, but mainly on woodgas or in the microwave....

Presenter: Can you explain what this has to do with Fuller and Gandhi?

Jack: Gandhi's model of "self-sufficiency" is the goal: the freedom that comes from owning your own life support system outright is immense. It allows us to disconnect from the national economy as a way of solving the problems of our planet one human at a time. But Gandhi's goals don't scale past the lifestyle of a peasant farmer and many westerners view that way of life as unsustainable for them personally: I was not going to sell my New York condo and move to Oregon to live in a hut, you know?

Presenter: Ok.... with you so far.... what about Fuller?

Jack: Gandhi's Goals, Fuller's Methods, if you like.

Fuller's "do more with less" was a method we could use to attain self-sufficiency with a much lower capital cost than "buy out at the top." An integrated, whole-systems-thinking approach to a sustainable lifestyle - the houses, the gardening tools, the monitoring systems - all of that stuff was designed using inspiration from Fuller and later thinkers inspired by efficiency. The slack - the waste - in our old ways of life were consuming 90% of our productive labor to maintain....

Presenter: So let's talk politics. Unplugging is also a political movement - you yourself are mayor of a township here, and your "town" is the local Unplugger population plus a few hold outs in ghost suburbs east of here. Why play at politics if all you wanted to do was drop off the Grid?

Jack: Because political assumptions wire everything. Building codes dictate how you can build, which dictates the size of your housing cost, which is the primary factor in your Unplug Cost. Our sanitary systems are greatly more effective than those of the Grid but, because we fertilize food with human waste after extracting what energy we can from it, some say our food isn't suitable for human consumption - even though, in fact, there is no scientific evidence what-so-ever of any disease organisms in the fertilizer stream. Just the idea of fertilizing using processed human waste freaks people out, even though it is how humans always lived. And this pattern repeats for water, our medical practices, all of it. You would think that preventative medicine was a crime!

Because we are different, the existing legal infrastructure works against us at every hand and turn. To create change, we have to play politics. But we are careful to simply use our small-but-growing clout to open doors for our chosen lifestyle, not to close doors on other people's choices. We aren't ecostalinists....

Presenter: There's a lot of science here!

Jack: Oh yes. We monitor everything we have proved pays, and more: soil bacteria genetics, nutrient levels in the soil, nematode populations, you name it. We have such excellent yields and pest control because we don't move around much - we get to know our land as scientists and artists and designers - we share knowledge and models. Of course, not everybody contributes equally to this knowledge base - I have a neighbour who is a molecular biology professor by (former-) trade and, well, I use his numbers a lot ([grins]). But we all do what we can, and the results are proof that our farming techniques - "high monitoring biointensive agriculture" or "Technical Permaculture" depending on where you live and which school you follow - our farming methods work, and will continue to work for at least a few hundred to a few tens of thousands of years....

Presenter: What do you mean "a change that society can make?"

Jack: Unpluggers now constitute 5% of the United States population. At first, we were the very ideologically motivated, and there was a lot of interface with older communitarian groups and prior generations who had attempted to make this transition. But as we became more defined, and our thinkers elucidated our case more clearly - as our farmer-scientists began to really get the yields predicted in theory, on a per-square-foot basis... it became clear that we were talking about a partial solution to the problems that have faced the human race from the beginning of time: how do I live myself, and how does my family live. And a society is just individuals and families, and sometimes families of families, all the way up to States and Governments and the International Agencies and so on. If you solve the problem for a single family, and it's something which can compete in the evolutionary marketplace of ideas, then eventually you can solve the entire problem.

You know why GDP has gone down 20% because of Unplugging? Unpluggers are entrepreneurs. We used to start businesses because we wanted to buy out at the top of the game, now we usually buy a fairly lavish Pod, and some really, really good quality land, unplug by 30, and some of us expect to spend the rest of our lives learning, teaching and exploring what it is to be alive. Farming five or six hours a day seems like a lot of work, but you do it with friends, and you're doing science and research some of the time, and you eat what you make. The basic activities of life are so much more satisfying that earn-and-spend-and-eat-carry-out when you actually respect them as basic human activities, as links we share with everything that is alive.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Battlepanda said...

Well, it's a beautiful vision. But hasn't it been the case that every time somebody go out there and try and start a commune, things fall apart in spectacular ways?

I think the problem with this kind of "unplugged" living is when you become unplugged from the wider monetary economy, you must become plugged into an alternate "community" economy. This used to be a necessity, and various customs and folkways were established to delinate the rules of engagements in "community" economies. It's part of the double-edged sword of modernity that we've severed ourselves from the old community ties, but we've also freed ourselves from the old community obligations.

Many part of living an "unplugged" lifestyle sounds appealing to me.
And maybe I'm a big misanthrope for saying this, but I don't think I could put up with depending so much on other people and having other people depend on me in ways that are not mediated and diffused by the monetary market.

March 16, 2006 10:17 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

As I understand it at least, the system is based not so much on communalism in shared spaces, as an economic network and open-source pooling of advanced human-scale technology. You get enough people in the system, doing their own thing on their own land with the basic technologies for self-sufficiently, and their mutual dealings can be mediated through a LETS or barter system in exactly the same way as money.

And I don't think they're *prohibited* from money dealings outside the system; although they seem to have population clusters as a form of political self-defense, I'd guess there is a substantial leavening of non-Unplugger population mixed into such areas, with the degree of interaction being a matter of individual choice.

March 16, 2006 11:04 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

My father grew up in the '30s and was something of a car-spotter. He once told me that the largest technological changes since the war involved the way that even high tech equipment had begun to need high tech tools for maintenance. Before, any blacksmith with the instructions could maintain a car even if some of its construction had needed special tools - and even then, those hadn't then needed special tools to make them.

This was partly behind East German thinking in making its "inefficient" cars like the Trabant. Bearing these different priorities in mind, and bearing in mind new crops now available, here is a simple approach that should work for self sufficiency today.

Extended families of, say, 20-30 people spread over three generations live together in a compound with separate accommodations. They have several acres growing potatoes, carrots, legumes, perennial maize (dug up every few years) and some hay (I'm making some assumptions about local growing conditions for this example).

They have some milk animals and raise guinea pigs for meat (children can look after these).

There is power equipment, basically the simplified two stroke system of the old Trojan trucks only adapted to burn organic material like dung and crop stubble in a gas producer. General or special purpose cultivators can easily be changed on a standard power plant.

If nanotechnology ever gets practical, small special objects will be easy to fabricate in small (non-competitive) quantities.

This approach draws on what people had to fall back on in, say, occupied France (potatoes, carrots and producer gas), and the easily maintable technology of 75 years ago. The idea is to eliminate daily and weekly dependence.

In earlier times, similar subsistence families got cash from a literal cash cow (milk could be sold), or by adolescents "going into service" and sending pay home. Or some cash crops could be grown in the gaps, or there were some "putting out" activities available cash for work from home.

I found it interesting that two early amateur aviation pioneers and enthuisiasts, Henri Mignet and Willard Custer, kept going in hard times by living off their vegetable gardens - with their families. Look it up; it was in the 1930s and 1940s.

March 17, 2006 1:49 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Thanks for plugging my fiction along with the post, Kevin.

To Battlepanda: I agree that communal experiments have generally fallen apart, but I don't think this falls under that heading. Getting a bunch of like-minded people together in a community is a far cry from making everyone sit down together at mealtimes. Kropotkin noted that most communes failed because of a lack of privacy, and emphasized that a communal or communist society needed to give people plenty of private space.

My favourite part of the story is almost unnoticed by the reporter character: the amount of labour for the unpluggers has been reduced sharply. They spend five or six hours a day working. That's less than the seven to eight most people spend at their jobs. Cut out the commute and other nonsense and the increase in free time would be the biggest draw for a lifestyle like this for me.

March 18, 2006 4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, YES!

This is very much what I aspire to do, but the buy out cost in the UK is insane due to the outrageous land prices.

Duncan

March 20, 2006 6:08 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

PML,

That's very thought-provoking. But did you mean to say "even low-tech equipment" in your second sentence?

Your integration of improved crop varieties into the scheme reminds me of Mumford on "polytechnics"--different "phases" of technology coexisting in a single process.

I'd never heard of perennial maize before you mentioned it, but now I'm trying to track down a supplier. One thing I've experimented with is amaranth. It's an excellent drought-hardy cereal crop (Bob Rodale used to promote it heavily for low-rainfall areas). It's not very good for yeast bread--little or no gluten--but adds an interesting high-mineral taste to wheat flour. Also good in corn bread when susbstituted for about 1/3 of the corn meal.

March 23, 2006 10:39 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

I meant to add, I also like the use of small-scale power technology. I'd like to see more of this sort of intermediate technology integrated into village life in the Third World, instead of electricity from hydroelectric dams and other blockbuster projects to supply power mainly to heavy industry and the big plantations.

March 23, 2006 10:42 AM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Yes, KC, I did mean what I wrote. I should clarify it.

A steam engine of sorts could be made and maintained with blacksmith's tools. Better ones could be made with special tools, but those could in turn be made with the simple tools.

Early IC engines needed special tools to make them, but not to maintain them (if you could order in the parts). But still, until maybe the 1930s, those special tools could be made with simple tools.

After that, you needed high level tools to make the high level tools, and maintenance started to need special tools too.

Even so, a knowledgeable hobbyist could still assemble a new model T Ford as late as the 1950s, since the parts were still available via mail order. And the Trabant style of engineering was aimed at cars that could be maintained in the field, since in the Soviet bloc you still only had primitive resources there.

So, you can't just switch modern equipment over to sustainable small scale use. You have to retrace your steps to at least the 1930s approach, even if you are willing to get the equipment from outside on an occasional basis.

It's the whole daily and weekly independence thing, so that your remaining dependencies can be deferred to suit your own convenience.

By the way, what I outlined was a list of proven individual techniques, but there's the caveat that they haven't been tested together. I tried designing an improved gas producer that way, from known techniques that haven't been combined.

But that means that if you wanted a proven gas producer design, I'd refer you to another one (too long to describe here - I'll email you with details if you like).

That no-system-test problem also applies to recycling waste as manure. If you're not careful, gradually heavy metals and complex chemicals from outside purchases and outside pollution will build up.

I suspect it would be necesary to have some low end plants growing on the final manure. With careful choice of plants, they would concentrate poisons in some parts and you could recycle the other parts as mulch, discarding the poisoned parts.

I have also given some thought to what you might call nature's hydroponics, plants like epiphytes and in particular aerophytes that already grow separately from soil.

You could grow those with much less artificial contrivance, which would make things a lot easier (e.g. if you had a land shortage) even if you couldn't use them as human crops. They could still be animal fodder, nitrogen fixing mulch, and/or producer gas feedstock.

March 24, 2006 8:39 PM  

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