Adapting for Future Scarcity

31 05 2012

Most of this follows from the series of comments by Guilherme de Baskerville to this post on the Archdruid Report. I thought about posting directly there, but decided against it. The new post will be up soon, this would be very long for a comment, and I would like to have it someplace where I can easily reference it for later thinking. This is sketchy, basically an overstuffed blog comment, but there is material for elaboration.

Guilherme’s complaint about the narrow focus on small-scale agriculture some bring to the scarcity discussion ought to be underlined. While agricultural concerns will be important, long-term plans into the descent need to think more broadly, imagining and planning for a full society. In thinking about the shift that will be coming to America, I’ve been (a little awkwardly, I admit) trying to hold a handful of models in mind. They fall into roughly three categories: descriptive, proscriptive, and cautionary.

So, descriptively, I’m trying to hold in mind some examples of what industrial scarcity might look like. While Rome forms an excellent model of decline, it doesn’t help so much in thinking through industrial decline. The same holds for Greer’s model of the UK’s decline. While the UK was an industrial power in decline, its decline has occurred during a phase of overall industrial expansion. The pattern we see in both will likely hold, but the concrete situations will likely differ.

With this in mind, I have been turning my attention of late toward the USSR and post-Soviet Russia. The microcosm of the Soviet over-extension and collapse seems rooted in questions of industrial and military concerns that better fit the present U.S. situation. This match, while still imperfect, seems instructive.

I recently started reading a book, Conjuring Hope by Galina Lindquist, which has strengthened my sense of the comparison’s aptness. The author focuses on magi (what we might call cunning folk or conjure people) in Russia, but she begins with a compact account of recent Russian history on the ground that we may get a taste of in the coming years if models like Greer’s hold up. That entails not so much the disappearance of industrial goods, but the sharp increase in their price, making all but the basics difficult for most people to purchase. (She has some good things to say about the role of magic and the occult economy in this sort of world, too, which seem to be mirrored by present-day shifts in the U.S. occult world.)

Proscriptively, though, I’m looking for models of living that might be possible to support in scarcer times and figuring out how to move toward them. Like Guilherme, I’m less optimistic about overly agrarian visions of that future. Since I live in the U.S., I figure the place to start is going back to less resource heavy forms of living that developed here prior to the heavy industrialism of the last century. The 19th-century U.S. provides a useful starting point. The opportunities available in that world are diverse, including a range of agricultural and urban opportunities Those may not support the same populations we have today, but if Greer is correct, some of those shifts happen organically enough. Lifespans shorten a little, reproduction slows, and so on.

There are problems with this model and I’m not entirely sure how to answer them. The social inequality of this period is terrible, with labor exploitation (slavery, sharecropping, wage suppression) joined to extensive coercive violence (Indian removal and reeducation programs, and lynching of blacks to take just two very visible cases). I’m hopeful that there are ways to make this transition without resuscitating these inequalities,  but I am betting that will take some work now. I sure don’t know exactly what that work is, yet, but it’s something I want to start figuring out.

My hunch is that we will need to rethink the town if we are going to really put some ‘shock absorbers’ on the rough ride of the long descent. We’ll need shop owners, millers, school teachers, craftsman (e.g., blacksmiths, carpenters), scholars, doctors, and so on. That seems the most basic building block, from which broader networks of trade can develop. Those skills demand dedication, something more than can be attained by someone engaged as a committed hobbyist. Think about what it takes to produce a Roy Underhill and you start to head in the right direction.

On the cautionary fronts, I am thinking of places where scarcity has borne terrible fruits. Haiti is at the fore of these. While I doubt that the U.S. will turn into Haiti, I see in Haitian history the dangers of scarcity writ large, which we risk cultivating on a lesser scale if we are not careful. Haiti’s history speaks directly to Guilherme’s concerns about neo-feudalism. Without informed political power (which rests in part on economic influence), small-scale agrarian workers are exposed to exploitation at the hands of those with it. There is an accompanying danger of over-exploitation of local resources by unregulated access to them by industrial powers (with the clout to ignore those local agrarians) and by the agrarians themselves, desperate to offset scarcity. Especially as the population is in decline toward a level suited to its environment, it risks overusing that environment’s resources by trying to preserve various comforts.

Demand for fuel, for example, can lead to wide-scale deforestation. Those without access to quite enough food, over hunt the local fauna. Even those who have enough for themselves (those prescient neo-agrarians, perhaps) quickly find their own resources tapped by those around them, forcing them into patterns of overuse, too. Those in this situation thus find their vulnerability to outside power increase. It’s these sorts of pattern that reinforce my hunch about the importance of town-level organization.

Cuban history has been catching my eye lately, too. That seems like an interesting hybrid case where all the models meet, in which decline and adaptation have happened in ways we could learn from. They have spent quite some time now adapting to oil scarcity, with the admixture of sudden drops (e.g. the special period) and steady slopes. The resulting adaptations have been a mixture of salvage and innovation which suggests not everything about industrial decline will be a matter of going backwards. Sustainable agriculture in Cuba may have lessons for us. Socially, too, there have been advances in civil rights during Cuba’s experience of decline rather than just a regression or entrenchment of old mores. Perhaps, too, we might not just preserve but advance knowledge toward the demands of the future.

I’m cautious about a ready comparison with Cuba, though. For one, Cuba had the strange fortune of losing its elite during the Cuban Revolution. The decampment of entrenched elites for the U.S. left a lot of room for social transformation. That was followed by the Mariel exodus which again opened the way for social change. It’s doubtful the U.S. will have the same experience, especially since there won’t be an obvious place for the elites to decamp to. I expect to see the elites double-down, trying to secure more firmly their resources and way of life.

For two, Cuba has a very central government that converges in the figure of Fidel Castro. While rigid, when the government decided to make changes, there was very little in the way of resistance. I suspect in the U.S., a comparable shift will require a bit more political mobilization and savviness, if for no other reason than to help check the power of re-entrenching elite.

I find all of this sobering and intimidating, but not hopeless; that seems about right.

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