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Friday, May 28, 2010

Good Show

[Repost from eight years ago -- this is a very old blog, y'know. I think I may be nearing the end of it, as the things I'm saying are all repeats -- often of things I said much better long ago ...]

As a civilization, we of the West have begun to lose the capacity to make and repair and do, for ourselves, or locally. And with the strains on the complex system now in place, and its tendency to serve mainly the top ten percent of its income brackets, the need for reversing the centralizing trend becomes more and more urgent.

When I see so many of my friends and neighbors thrown out of work, I'm reminded of that moment in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano when the protagonist's car breaks down, and a crowd of the great mass of unemployed gathers, which he views with suspicion until one of them wistfully says, as nearly as I can remember it from a distant read: "Maybe I could look at it for you. I used to be pretty good with my hands."

The generation now in charge has mostly not read E. F. Schumacher, which is a sad fact. My copy of Small is Beautiful (Perennial Library, 1973) is almost forty years old; it's a crumbling paperback, yellow and a bit musty, that has traveled with me, long un-reread but treasured, crisscrossing the Northwest with me when I worked in the woods, and the nation when I worked in Pennsylvania.

If we thought Schumacher's views were important then, we should read him now. Everything he found urgent has become more so.

Samples:
...one of the most fateful errors of our age is the belief that the problem of production has been solved. This illusion ... is mainly due to our inability to recognize that the modern industrial system, with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected .... it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. (20)
And:
An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth -- in short, materialism -- does not fit into [the] world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment within which it is placed is strictly limited. (29-30)

By "limits" he means three things; fossil fuels, natural systems with their feedback loops, and human limitations (that they can tolerate only so much of a life that is functionally no more than slavery, or consumerism, or both). He believes if he can prove his point with any one of the three, he has made his case.

Economics, as practiced by industrial society, is in Schumacher's view fatally fragmentary: the society's judgments
are based on a definition of costs which excludes all "free goods," that is to say, the entire God-given environment, except for those parts of it that have been privately appropriated. This means that an activity can be economic although it plays hell with the environment, and that a competing activity, if at some cost it protects and conserves the environment, will be uneconomic. (43)
Thus you have the strange condition in which extraction of oil from the ground, poisoning the land, water, air, and ourselves, is an activity which can be rationally charted as economic, and leaving it there so that we can breathe, avoid being roasted by climate change, and survive as a species, cannot.

One effect of the fragmentary view of the world encouraged by industrial economics is that agricultural work is regarded as of little value; since agriculture is seen in this view to be simply another kind of factory, and no "profit" can be extracted from it unless it is practiced on an industrial scale, more farming must be done by fewer and fewer people and the rural population is displaced into the cities to look for work there, adding to the enormous problems of social disintegration and grinding poverty that appear in urban settings.

The subtitle of the book is "Economics as if People Mattered." Schumacher was Catholic, and regarded St. Thomas Aquinas as the underpinning of his understanding of science. He knew that much of his audience would be unwilling to hear him if he made much of this at the time, so he devised a clever and famous chapter, "Buddhist Economics." A discussion framed in Buddhist terms served his immediate aims just as well as one framed in Christian terms, for his point was that economics ought to serve humanity and not the other way round; and economics cannot serve humanity on its terms, for that which makes us human is unquantifiable in dollar amounts.

What is desirable to the materialist economist is undesirable to the Buddhist economist and vice versa, so that their aims in the short term are diametrically opposed. This is because the Buddhist economist has an interest in the long term, which is an interest that is unquantifiable in the industrial economist's system.

Buddhism is concerned with the alleviation of suffering so that one can focus on understanding one's self and the universe better, with the aim of right living, of choosing a path that promotes one's own well-being and that of all others: what are called "sentient beings" in Buddhist lingo. So the way of Buddhism trends toward peace and the way of a materialist system trends toward the opposite:
As the world's resources of non-renewable fuels -- coal, oil and natural gas -- are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must inevitably lead to violence between men .... Before [materialists in Buddhist countries] dismiss Buddhist economics as nothing better than a nostalgic dream, they might wish to consider whether the path of economic development outlined by modern economics is likely to lead them to places where they really want to be. (61)
All well and good; but as with almost all liberals, one might expect that at this point Schumacher will rest on his laurels, having simply noted that what we are all doing is a Bad Show. But, unlike others, he has a specific set of proposals toward what might be a Better Show.

Schumacher notes that when local people produce local goods for other local people, the relationship, the bond, between them, that sense of well-being for which industrial economy can find no place in its equations, is strengthened.

Hence what are called "economies of scale" -- nation-states, multinational corporations, mass production, and export -- are false economies because they encourage bankruptcy in those three things, the state of the planet, of its non-renewables, and of the well-being of its beings.

Whereas local economies, inefficient as they are in those equations, tend to conserve the Three Things.

It's true, notes Schumacher, that in what are called Third World countries, there are what might be called one-pound (or we Americans could say one-dollar) workplaces, and life is marginal and sometimes prey to drought, disease, etc. But the cure proposed by the industrial economy is to bring in one-thousand-dollar workplaces, which cannot be justified economically except through extractive export strategies that ultimately only benefit the industrial chieftains in the developed countries.

Local people, on seeing the implementation of these impressive workplaces, often give up (and forget how to return to) their own one-dollar strategies, expecting full employment, except that the one-thousand-dollar solution, due to its capital cost, cannot be emplaced quickly enough to provide this. So from marginal existence a great many of them go straight to a starvation existence. Also, full employment was never a goal of the industrial economy in the first place. Fear tends to be regarded by the captains of industry as a great motivator, and pools of underutilized labor can be tapped for new projects at "reasonably" low wages.

Schumacher proposes an "intermediate" solution.

Devise the one-hundred-dollar workplace, using technologies that can be built and managed locally, to produce a higher standard of living by marketing the product locally.

To the objection that local people from a one-dollar background have no buying power, he answers that with the ten-times-cheaper-than-industrial-scale one-hundred-dollar workplace, you can do ten startups simultaneously, with the goods from one workplace affordable to the workers in one of the other nine.

There is thus no need to export, eliminating the need to carry on in the extractive and eventually bankrupting manner to which the West is addicted. Also, rural populations, by recovering a measure of independence and self-worth locally, are then not so easily driven to the urban ghettos, which reduces the strain on the megalopolitan cities which our industrial economy has created.

This sounds Utopian, but in fact his approach has been extensively tested. To show what would be examples of intermediate technology, applied to local economies by the local people themselves and not by well-intentioned but locally ignorant strangers, he formed, with other scientists and interested parties, a barely capitalized organization called the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG).

They still exist, as the nonprofit Practical Action, thirty years later!

ITDG, with little real cooperation and much disdain from the developed nation-states and megacorporations, has for four decades doggedly kept up its mission of demonstrating the economic and scientific principles of E. F. Schumacher, and carried out numerous local initiatives, always sharing the lessons learned with anyone who seeks them out.

In the field of local energy development, they began with the obvious: people in developing countries depend on biomass for energy, and open fires waste energy. So ITDG designed low cost cooking stoves to reduce impact on the forests and other vegetative cover, as well as the tremendous labor expended, usually by women and children, in going farther and farther to strip the landscape of available fuel.

When a locality is ready for more, Practical Action is ready with more: micro-hydro plants, small scale wind generators, solar lanterns, biogas.

A serious bottleneck for local production, which cannot easily reach even local markets in rural areas of undeveloped countries, is transportation. Practical Action offers expertise in locally controlled construction of cycle trailers, improved ox and donkey carts, and efficient low-technology road building.

I refer those interested to Practical Action's website to grasp the scope of their activities. None of the ideas described are vaporware; they have applied them all in the real world and have the stories of local communities where the projects are being carried out.

See their links on agroprocessing, food production, information and communications technologies, small-scale mining, water and sanitation, disaster amelioration, advocacy, and education.

One might think that Practical Action would have an extensive Peace-Corps-style volunteer program. That's not the case. They seem to be a low-overhead operation, focused on getting information into the hands of the rural populations that need it, rather than bringing in mysterious expertise as if from some "higher" realm, deus ex machina, to carry out projects little understood by those they "help."

What Practical Action brings is accessible knowledge, created not for but in cooperation with rural populations in Third World, countries, the kind of knowledge that takes root in the heart of the woman or man who says, "yes, I can do this."

Practical Action has respect for the communities it works with. It advocates, and carries out, programs which restore subsistence and distributed capability. And it costs little to emulate it; a little heart, some labor, some clear communication, and an ethic. It's one of the few Good Shows going.

Quite a legacy, Dr. Fritz!

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