Thursday, October 12, 2006

Economics: The Sound of Aunt Edna’s Knitting

If the economic landscape beyond Hubbert’s peak proves to be the sort of rough terrain outlined in my last two Archdruid Report posts, how can individuals, families, and communities deal with it? On the large scale, opportunities for action are limited at best, not least because the noise of volatility can too easily hide the signal of decline. Just as recent plunges in the price of oil and natural gas have encouraged the delusion that we no longer have to worry about energy, the upside of the post-peak economy – the fortunes made, the speculative gambles that pay off, the boomtimes when demand destruction crashes energy prices and all seems right with the world – will make it easy for people to convince themselves that industrial society is still on track.

It’s easy to understand this sort of thinking, since the alternative is to accept the unacceptable: to admit that the industrial age is ending, and the luxuries, conveniences, and standard of living that define ordinary lifestyles in the modern world are going away, not just for a little while, but forever. That the unacceptable is also inevitable makes it no easier to cope with. Still, accepting the unacceptable is the crucial step in dealing with the economic impact of peak oil. Every assumption about the future has to be reassessed in the light of a contracting economy in which money and other forms of abstract wealth no longer guarantee access to goods and services.

Not that long ago in historical terms, it's worth recalling, money actually played a fairly small role in the overall economic picture. Until well after 1700, more than half of all goods and services in the western world were produced and consumed in household and community economies, and exchanged in customary networks governed by obligation and reciprocity, not supply and demand. Most households produced the great majority of their own food, clothing, and other necessities, and used surpluses to barter for specialty goods with other local producers. Cash served as a means of exchange for things produced so far away that transport costs and spoilage made barter unworkable. It took cheap, abundant fossil fuel energy to make transportation so cheap that centralized production and distribution of commodities could take the place of local production for local use.

In the aftermath of peak oil, such local economies are the wave of the future, and the money economy of the present and recent past is an anachronism. Since fossil fuel depletion is a gradual process, though, the changeover won’t happen all at once. This is a good thing, since the vast majority of people in the industrial world today lack the skills and tools to function in a local economy. Their jobs – from executives and consultants through salespeople, office staff, and all the other cubicle-shaped pigeonholes in the corporate caste system – serve functions internal to the industrial economy instead of producing goods and services people want or need.

The jobs that matter in a deindustrial economy, by contrast, are the ones that meet human needs directly. Farming is the classic example. If you grow food crops with your own labor, you don’t actually need the money economy, except insofar as it forces itself on you by way of property taxes and the like. Your labor provides you with value directly, since some of your crops end up on your own kitchen table; the rest can be exchanged with other local sources of goods and services you need – the seamstress next door, the blacksmith down the road, the general store in town. Money is a convenient way of facilitating these exchanges, but it’s not necessary; you can as well use barter, or local scrip, or any other means of exchanging value that comes to hand. Because what you produce has value to other people, you can trade for the things other people produce that you need, whether or not the money economy is there to mediate the trade.

Compare the farmer to a corporate marketing assistant or a factory worker in an injection-casting plant and the differences become clear. The marketing assistant provides a service – helping to create and manage marketing plans for a corporation – that has no value outside the money economy. If she wanted to barter with a farmer for food, she probably wouldn’t get far offering to help manage his corporate identity via a media campaign! The factory worker is in a slightly better position. If the money economy comes unglued, the factory owners might pay him in castings, and he could then try to barter these for the goods and services he needs; exactly this arrangement was common in the former Soviet Union during the economic collapse of the early 1990s. Still, he depends on the factory and its owners to provide him with a workplace and some form of pay, and in a volatile, crumbling economy his situation is a precarious one.

In the deindustrial age, then, the farmer’s economic model is the more viable, because it can do without the mediation of the money economy. Other professions that produce necessary goods and services will be in the same comfortable position, since people will continue to need food, clothing, shoes, tools, and the like, and will trade for them using whatever means are available. Except in the most difficult times, they will also be willing to trade for other things that aren’t quite necessities; someone who brews good beer, for example, can count on a market for his wares in all but the most apocalyptic times, and quite possibly even then.

Since the twilight of the money economy will be a gradual process, it won’t necessarily be possible for individuals to make the transition to a deindustrial career in a single leap. What can and must be tackled right now is the learning curve demanded by any of these skilled trades. It’s not enough to line your shelves with books about organic farming, for example; you need to start buying tools, digging garden beds, and growing your own crops, and you need to do this as soon as possible, because mastering the craft of organic farming takes time. The same is true if you decide to take up blacksmithying, brewing, small appliance repair, or any other useful trade: you need to get the tools and start learning the craft, so you’ll have your Plan B firmly in place when the money economy folds out from under you.

Skilled trades for local exchange are part of the picture, but another part is just as essential – the reinvention of the household economy. Not so long ago, a large fraction of all economic value came from the household sector. Many of us still remember grandmothers who always had jars of homemade jelly in the cupboard and crochet hooks dancing in their hands, and grandfathers whose garages were as full of well-worn tools as their gardens were of ripe tomatoes. The marketing campaigns that squeezed the last traces of the household economy out of existence stigmatized these activities as hobbies, and dowdy hobbies at that, but they were once a good deal more – and in a world on the brink of deindustrialization, they desperately need to be revived.

People have different opportunities and talents, and one size emphatically does not fit all. For those who have access to garden space, though, a household garden is probably the top priority here. It’s not necessary to grow all your own food, or even a large proportion of your total calorie intake, for this to have a significant impact on your quality of life. In America, at least, bulk crops such as grains and beans will likely be available via the money economy for many years to come. Fruits, vegetables, and animal foods – that is, sources of vitamins, minerals, and protein – are another matter. A vegetable garden, a couple of fruit trees, and perhaps a rabbit hutch or a tank for carp or tilapia may mean the difference between malnutrition and health.

If you don’t have access to garden space, consider taking up a useful handicraft or two. Aunt Edna’s habit of knitting cardigans for all and sundry may have seemed quaint in the heyday of the industrial economy, but when central heating prices itself out of existence and transport costs put paid to clothing imports from Third World sweatshops, warm clothing you can make with your own hands has obvious value, and may also be a useful item of barter. The same is true of many other skills, from soapmaking and herbal medicine to the handyman skills that allow plumbing, furniture, and appliances to be repaired at home.

Another response to human wants and needs outside the money economy will be vital during the deindustrial age, and needs to be revived and practiced as soon as possible. This is the art of doing without. The industrial economy has trained all of us to think that the only possible thing to do with a desire is fulfill it, preferably by spending money on some consumer product or other. The contracting economy of the deindustrial age will offer very little leeway to this sort of self-indulgent thinking. On the far side of Hubbert’s peak, your capacity to survive will largely be measured by the number of things you can do without. It’s hardly an accident, either, that the world’s spiritual traditions also affirm the value of being unattached to material things.

Among the things we will have to learn to do without, though, perhaps the most important is not a material thing at all, but a habit – the deliberate cultivation of uselessness that goes by the name of “leisure.” Only a society flush with cheap energy could convince itself that the highest goal of human life is to sit around doing nothing, and even so it takes the nonstop blare of the media to distract us from the fact that sitting around doing nothing is the dullest of all human activities. Our grandparents’ generation and their ancestors knew as much, which is why leisure a century ago focused on creative activities rather than indolence, and why Aunt Edna knitted all those cardigans long after the industrial economy made home production of clothing unnecessary. The twilight of industrial society, like the fall of other civilizations before it, will doubtless be accompanied by plenty of tumult and shouting, but the real story – the signal behind all that noise – will be a much fainter sound: the soft clatter of Aunt Edna’s knitting needles, beginning to knit the fabric of a new and more sustainable world.


norlight0 said...

Good post. Your early comments about denial are so true. It brings to mind what happened to our Canadian friends in the Maritimes when the cod fishery collapsed a few years back. Even AFTER the situation was self-evident, many expressed the desire just to go back to fishing and their old way of life. Am sure that there are many individuals, families and communities who still have not adjusted well.
Much of the rest of your post brings back memories of the back to the land movement of 30 years ago and the works of Helen and Scott Nearing and those of the decentralist, Ralph Borsodi. The Nearings operated on a use economy, and Borsodi maintained that 70% of our real needs could be produced out of the home. He was big on gardening and home weaving of cloth. About the same time, a gentleman out in Ohio, used the Amish as a real life example of what E.F. Schumacher's conservator society might look like.
One practical device that might help people think about their own sitution is to do a SWOT analysis of present way of life as it stacks up against a peak oil reality. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. By asking what your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are it is possible to what your most pressing needs would be and help set priorities as preparations are made. Am enjoying your articles, and look forward to what other's have to say. Norlight

PeakEngineer said...

You're right, it's difficult to convince anyone of the need to drastically change their lives, even among those most in tune with the challenges we face. It's a slow (but urgent) process, and all we can do is keep presenting objective data to all who will listen. Good thoughts on the changes we will need to make in a post-Peak Oil future.

Adrynian said...

What's the sound of a lifetime of industrial-society culture (i.e. norms, values, beliefs, behaviour, and material structures) smacking up against the rock-hard wall of a peak-oil reality? No wonder it's so hard to accept; we've been socialized our whole lives to believe it was impossible!

Great post, JMG!

Your idea of the economies of the future (and past) sounds a good deal like Mike Carr's descriptions of the reciprocal gift-exchange economies of the First Nations of the West Coast of North America in his book "Bioregionalism and Civil Society". I haven't finished it, but from what I've read, he advocates a position very similar to yours (except without the awareness of peak-oil, from what I can tell). The only downside that I can see is that, as you put it, such an economy requires a sense of mutual obligation, which can break easily under the right conditions and which, in our selfish, individualistic society, may take a while to rebuild. As an example of that first point, a good friend tells me Poland had a significant degree of such reciprocity before the collapse of the USSR and the introduction of capitalism there. Apparently, things have been changing as the voracious modern capitalist economy eats its way through the social bonds that enabled such reciprocity in the first place and monetizes everything in sight.

Adrynian said...

Hmm, sorry, I didn't mean to make that sound critical at all. I actually think reciprocal gift-economies are very important, not only for their economic value but also especially as a means of *building* trust/mutual obligation within a social group/community.

Great work! Please keep it up!

Eligere said...

Well that was a very satisfying post, paricularly since I and my little circle of friends spent the summer learning the fine art of canning fruits and veg. We have a wonderful farmer's market in the neighborhood, and CSA shares as well. At the height of the season there is more abundance than anyone knows what to do with. The most sensible idea seemed to be: can it and we'll feast all winter. Canning has the additional advantage of being blackout-proof. But as you say, it takes time to learn how to do it properly. I just wish it were more fuel efficient.

Your post makes me feel so much better about the closets full of wool and fabric I've been hoarding. Also the sewing machines, the notions (many inherited from my Aunt), and the knitting paraphernalia. I have always considered my hobbies an indulgence, or in norlightO's SWOT analysis, a weakness. They can now be reclassified as strengths. Hooray!

Minnesotan-with-a-view said...

Your ending interested me, most curiously since LEISURE seems to be in very SHORT supply in the lives of people these days. There's yet a lot of hard working overachievers out here pretending every moment counts, seeing weeks and years fly TOO fast, and probably will die young for their "healthy" work ethic.

Maybe there is an excess of sloth these days, but seems like "opportunity" creates a lot of busy ants in a modern world, and so I imagine there might be MORE sitting around in a slower world.

Well, I suppose if you say sitting in traffic is leisure, perhaps there'll be much less of some sorts!

Adrynian said...

I think he meant that the *idea* of leisure is glorified in our culture, as being one of the highest ideals we can aspire to. I hate to bring up the elite again (and JMG might not like or agree with this), but it might just be an example of a hegemonic ideology. As in, the elite have achieved a level of wealth great enough that they can live a life of leisure while still being able to consume like crazy. And because they're the elite class, we're supposed to want to aspire to be like them. Meanwhile, they have influence over - or in some cases, direct ownership of - most of the channels of mass communication through which this message can be broadcast.

My g/f also notes that there is the competing ideology that we should all be good, productive little workers (as you were pointing out, Minnesotan-with-a-view), but she agrees with me that this is actually consistent if we consider, for example, the concept of retirement - which is most definitely a recent phenomenon of our late industrial society. That is, we should all be really good, productive workers while we're young so that we can sit back and enjoy the *earned* leisure of retirement. Thus, the apparent contradiction of simultaneously being expected to be busy and productive while also trying to achieve a life of leisure can be seen to be just two sides of the same coin of ideology perpetuated by the elite control structures (both in the sense that we glorify them by aspiring to be like them and in the sense that we benefit them in the now by being their productive workers as we try to "earn" our leisure time).

RAS said...

Good point JMG. I do think that it is necessary to make a distinction between the kinds of leisure time, however, as some of it is very important to human health.
Sitting around doing nothing is obviously a waste, but so is working so much you never have time for the little things that make life worthwhile -rocking your baby to sleep, watching your children chase fireflies in the summer twilight, sitting on the porch watching the sun sat with your aging father, and the like. THAT leisure is good leisure -and there's far too little of it in our society today.

chirotic said...

Interestingly, a lot of the things that count as "hobbies" currently are going to become cornerstones of relocalized, household-centered economies in the future. Things like papermaking, candlemaking, knitting (knitting is quite the fad now among the women at the Big 10 college where I take classes), gardening, soap-making, and around here there are also a lot of micro-farm hobbyists, all are among those things we're all going to be dependent on down the line.

I was very surprised to learn that the colonial-era art of 'spinning' -- as in, spinning wool on a wheel to make yarn -- is HUGELY popular as a hobby. As are angora rabbits, for their wool... at some of the forums I've seen, people refer to them as "apartment sheep." (an angora rabbit actually might be a good way for someone trapped in an apartment to start developing a post-industrial skill.)

norlight0 said...

The discussion about "leisure" is an interesting one. I don't think the future has to be filled with never ending drudgery. There may be plenty to do, but life may be at a slower pace, more in tune with natural rhythms of daylight and the seasons. It is important to remember that in medieval europe that there were numerous feast days each year. This, in a region that had reached a subsistence balance between land people and resources. There were still reasons to share and celebrate.

The other factor in this is the power of community and cooperation. Today we largely don't cooperate because we can afford not to do so. Many practices in our own not so distant history were cooperative--barn and house raisings, corn husking bees, haying and wood cutting, and the wagon trains that settled the American West. As late as the 40's and 50's many family farmers still helped each other get in there fuelwood and crops, going from one farm to the other to get the work done. These strategies will re-emerge as fossil fuel use declines. The situation may not be easy, but we won't be going through it alone.

Frank Black said...

Norlight0 evoked the names of Scott and Helen Nearing. If one reads their books you will find that they set aside a small number of hours in their days for "work". They tried to ensure as much time for leisure as they did for work.

I say this only to bring up a point. I understand your context and your intent when you brought up leisure in the same vein as "sloth". This idea is right out of the guilt-inducing philosophies of Puritans and their ilk. "Idle hands are the devil's work". Crap! We should seek leisure time. No, not to lay around and be served by others or to live at the expense of others. We need leisure time to dream and learn and communicate. This industrial economy has many negatives, but it also has produced space exploration, computers, huge advances in medicine and engineering. This wouldn't have happened if we were all hunting, farming, sewing, canning, chopping, hauling and forging.

I am in full agreement with your assesment of the upcoming change in our economy. I see it coming and I mourn. I see so many changes that should have been made but were not due to greed. I see how we could live a wonderful life by making only small changes to our current lifestyles. But, I think we'll have to be compelled to go down this road rather than go voluntarily. It always has to be the hard way, doesn't it?

Adrynian said...

I think a critical aspect of leisure is that humans want and *need* to engage themselves in activities that they find enjoyable, that allow them to pursue their personal interests at their own pace, and that give them the opportunity to get their creative juices flowing. Yes, there is definitely a time for relaxing and just smelling the roses - as it were - often accompanied by friends and family. But when you're not doing that or working towards survival, I think almost everyone has something they like to do with their time, a hobby of some sort (which is what JMG was talking about), and these *do* allow us to "dream and learn and communicate". They are, in fact, *crucial* to it.

As for the other bit about us never having developed better medicine or engineering - possibly even crude computers - without the industrial revolution (I will, however, acknowledge the improbability of making it to space without cheap, abundant energy), I have to respectfully disagree. There are plenty of men (and some women too, though many of them were men, thanks to prevalent sexism throughout history) for whom advances in science and technology were a hobby, often even a calling. So I find it very hard to believe that we wouldn't have developed at least some technological improvements and many of the advances in our knowledge base without fossil fuels. Keep in mind that the scientific revolution had already been around for ~150 years before James Watt improved the Newcomen engine. It was neither sparked by the industrial revolution nor dependent on it, though it was eventually fueled by its booming populations and the need to address certain economic questions of that time.

Perhaps some developments in physics would have taken longer or been more difficult without modern particle accelerators - and perhaps computers wouldn't have been developed, or would be precious and rare - but we may have just come up with other ways to answer those questions. It's really hard to say now, since we didn't actually follow that path. Humans are curious creatures, however, and once we'd discovered the scientific method a lot of advances and new knowledge were sure to follow.

Mark said...

Great post. Recently I was on a weekend here which explored traditional crafts. There was great interest in Blackmithing, Coppersmithing, longbow making, woodcraft & herb lore and although we all worked hard over the weekend we felt happy and energised afterwards.

I made a copper caddy from an old immersion cylinder while others wandered the woods picking the seasonal herbs to make tinctures and poultices. (Elderflower syrup for an immune boost at the change of the season) I wondered if the participants knew whether they would actually need these skills within their lifetimes.

CELT Weekend in the woods in Co. Clare, Ireland was where it happened.

I look forward to your next posts.

Sicilian said...

Noticed you stopped by my blog. . . intersting reading. . . I think that leisure needs to be incorporated into our lives just to be healthy . . . . and if I had to live on my garden last season. . . I would have starved. . . we had record drought and no amount of water . . . . could have saved it. . . however my mom and brothers who live 700 miles away. . . had an abundant garden that could have kept a homeless shelter supplied all summer with vegetables.

John Michael Greer said...

Yes, I thought my comments on leisure would get some hackles up! The division of life into "work" and "leisure" is a good example of what Druid philosophy calls a binary -- a pair of apparent opposites that divide a unified field of experience into two sections, each of them defined by their most extreme manifestations. Challenge one side of a binary and, most times, people will assume that you're affirming the other side, whether that's what you're doing or not.

Thus I certainly don't mean to suggest that we all ought to work like dogs until we drop dead. What I'm trying to do, and will do more of later on, is to challenge the idea that the good life consists of passive consumption. That's what "leisure" has come to mean in our society, of course. Whether we're consuming TV programs, tropical vacations, or any other approved leisure activities, we're still just consuming.

Rocking a baby isn't passive and it doesn't consume. (It's also a source of value in several senses, not least because if I'm rocking the baby, the mother has a chance to do something else, like take a deep breath). Spending time with family members and friends is a source of value in that it weaves together the fabric of community -- but I doubt I'm the only one whose great-aunts used to knit, or crochet, or do needlework while they gossipped with their friends!

A couple of people commented on the fact that nobody seems to have any leisure any more. There's a whole series of nested ironies there, and those deserve a post of their own. For now, I'd just point out that it's far from uncommon, in our society and most others, for something to be idealized to the extent that it's inaccessible -- and for the idealization to become a key element in maintaining the inaccessibility.

New post tomorrow. In the meantime, keep knitting!

farmgirl said...

Well, my knitting suffers from a sort of multiple-personality disorder... on occasional winter evenings I knit, loop, and purl away, only I never seem to actually create anything other than a small....blanket. Must focus.

Anyway, the canning is going well.

Arabella said...

Thank you, JMG, for highlighting knitting as a craft that, like the others you mention, takes time to achieve some skill in.

I wish I had a skein of yarn for every 'newbie' knitter I've met who dives into the craft with great enthusiasm convinced they will knit an elaborately cabled sweater (just like the one in the LLBean catalog - for $30!) in a few short weeks.

Many, many of them give up quickly when they realize it's not nearly as easy as it looks, particularly if the item they have in mind has to fit!

Like your Aunt Edna, I had an Aunt Helen who knit quite a lot. At the time I found it 'quaint' and I wondered how she could spend so much time knitting. Now I know that she probably got deep satisfaction, creative joy, and more than a little meditative relaxation out of those hours.

Thank you again for giving a little nod of respect to the craft of knitting.

My best to you and to your Aunt Edna.