Ok, the future of doom and gloom is getting old fast. At this point, nobody can predict the future, not even Bruce Sterling, Dmitri Orlov or Warren Buffett. Even the billionaires are getting hosed by the economic downturn. But what this really proves is we have entered a new era where the old rules no longer apply. That prospect scares a lot of people, especially the ones who’ve gained the most money and power by maintaining the status quo. The elite have become naive enough to think they can continue getting away with theft and cronyism without any consequences (i.e. mob revolt), but this time they’re wrong. Asynchronous power is getting stronger all the time, which is why the worlds most powerful military is loosing to a small number of decentralized insurgents. I predicted the current economic crisis back in 2002, in my post Capital, Power and Ecology, simply because business as usual is not sustainable. It was destined to collapse, and my best guess at the time was that it would happen sometime within the next decade or so.
There is nothing like a crisis to spur rapid evolutionary growth. We are witnessing a level of creative destruction that is unprecedented both globally and historically. Yet solutions for every problem we face are already available right now. We have all the information we need. In fact we are drowning in it.
The current economic collapse, rather than being a indicator of worse things to come, is instead a wake-up call to re-engineer our society from the bottom-up to become more resilient, capable of withstanding unexpected change and upheaval. A resilient economy is also one that is more sustainable and integrated with the planetary ecology, and more responsive to the needs of all of its citizens. Economic growth can and will accelerate, but not by converting precious resources into cheap disposable products, but by making more intelligent use of the materials we already have! There is no reason why this intelligent growth (getting more from less) can’t increase indefinitely, or at least until we’re ready to leave the planet. This is what is called a regenerative economy, or what Bucky Fuller called, ephermalization, which is the idea of progressively doing more with less.
What most doomsayers like Dmitri Orlov don’t get is the process of ephermalization. His prediction is that our only solution is to accept that we’re all going to be a lot poorer, and we should just get used to it. This is just nonsense, and he’s not helping the situation any. I suppose if wealth is defined as having tons of disposable material goods, then yes our wealth will diminish. But is that what we really want? Having an economy that depends on cheap imported products from China, using up more non-renewable resources powered by coal-fired plants polluting the atmosphere while inducing severe climate change, is just plain stupid. So yes Dmitri is right, we are going to become a lot poorer in terms of Stupid Wealth, but a lot richer in terms of Smart Wealth (Please read the Smart Growth Manifesto for a great explanation of this idea).
The answers to future growth and wealth production are decentralization via localization, regeneration, remediation, renewables, and cybernation all of which results in greaterresiliency. If we can achieve both local and global resiliency we can grow out of our technological adolescence and become a type 1 civilization. This means the odds of our species surviving this century increases dramatically, and we can go on to become a space faring immortal civilization should that be our wish.
Here are details for the five trends I listed, and how each can change the world for the better:
This applies across the board. Anytime critical needs are centralized the resources for those needs are subject to attack and failure. If one power plant fails a domino effect can take place, knocking more power plants offline. The solution to creating a resilient energy supply that is resistant to overloads or sabotage is to localize power production through locally available renewable resources like solar, wind, and geothermal. If every community had at least one power generator for every thousand people in combination with more renewable energy being generated on local rooftops, there is nothing short of a nuclear blast that could shut it all down. The more decentralized, localized and miniaturized the power generation, the more resilient and reliable it becomes. In an ideal world all the power would be generated by the house or building itself. This applies equally to food production, means of exchange (localized currency), manufacturing and defense. For an interesting read on localized defense, read John Barr’s Power To The People. The topics John covers are both frightening and reassuring. But here is a good excerpt:
A newly vigilant and networked public will push for much greater levels of transparency in government and corporate operations, using the Internet to expose, publish, and patch potential security flaws. Over time, this new transparency, and the wider participation it entails, will lead to radical improvements in government and corporate efficiency.
On the national level, we’ll see a withering of the security apparatus, but quite possibly a flowering in other areas. Energy independence and the obsolescence of conventional war with other countries will reduce tensions between the United States and the rest of the world. The end of oil will also force corrupt states, now propped up by energy income, to make the reforms they need to be accepted internationally, improving life for their people.
Perhaps the most important global shift will be the rise of grassroots action and cross-connected communities. Like the Internet, these new networks will develop slowly at first. After a period of exponential growth, however, they will quickly become all but ubiquitous–and astonishingly powerful, perhaps as powerful as the networks arrayed against us.
This is really the same thing as decentralization. The localization movement is definitely picking up steam, as more people are beginning to realize that governments don’t work very well, and needs are best met locally. The aftermath of Katrina is a classic case of government gone wrong. There is a great book called The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, which is a users manual for transitioning your community from one dependent on centralized sources of food, energy, and currency to a localized one. A localized resilient community would be one that generates all of its own food, energy and many or most of its products. Desktop manufacturing will do a lot to bring the power of production down to the local level, reducing the current expensive and polluting means of transporting products from one corner of the globe to another. A product designed in Malaysia can then be sent online to you in Kansas, where it can be manufactured locally. A resilient community would also have a robust locally issued currency that is immune from government issued fiat currency that is fixed and manipulated by the most powerful for their benefit at the expense of everyone else.(See the video Money is Debt, for a fantastic explanation of the evils of corporate banking and government issued fiat currency). Localized currency is the way to go, and their many thriving examples, including the Totnes Pound in the UK, and the Berkshares in Western Massachusetts. At last count there are over 1200 local currencies in the US alone. The Totnes Pound was the brainchild of the author who wrote The Transition Handbook. He’s created a network of towns in the UK that are all making the transition to local resilience.
Another great idea is a Time Bank, where you deposit time by doing tasks for other members, who in turn get paid for your services with time they deposited. Time Banks are now operating in 22 countries and growing. Here’s a good quote from a guy who has combined the two concepts of local currency and time into what he calls Ithaca hours, in Ithaca New York.
“We printed our own money because we watched Federal dollars come to town, shake a few hands, then leave to buy rainforest lumber and fight wars. Ithaca’s HOURS, by contrast, stay in our region to help us hire each other. While dollars make us increasingly dependent on transnational corporations and bankers, HOURS reinforce community trading and expand commerce which is more accountable to our concerns for ecology and social justice.”
Regeneration is the ultimate endpoint of comprehensive recycling. To accomplish this will require two primary fronts of advancement. The first is new, efficient and cost-effective means to recycle materials we’ve already created, and the second is transitioning more of our products to using materials that can be recycled. Advances on both fronts will result in a middle ground combination of materials that are biodegradable, low or negative carbon footprint specific, and/or easily recycled non-biodegradable stock. Advances are happening on all these fronts, and those companies willing to spend money on research and development stand to reap huge financial rewards from innovation in recyclable materials and processes.
In the meantime, there are huge tracts of land that have been destroyed by pollution or non-sustainable agricultural processes. The solution is to engage in aggressive bioremediation efforts to regenerate the soil, clean up the toxic waste and polluted water stores. Solutions for this are already here, including nanofilters for cleaning water, microbes for cleaning and rendering harmless toxic waste, and advanced permaculture methods for bringing dead land back to life. John Todd developed what are called Living Machines, that can turn waste water back into drinkable water. With Todd’s help the Tennessee Valley Authority has already done this with their water supply, and has cleaned up their polluted river in the process. There are many good sources for information on how to do this for yourself. Some good starter books include Introduction to Permaculture, From Eco-Cities To Living Machines, Edible Forest Gardens, and Mycelium Runnng (which shows how to remediate dead soil using mushrooms).
This is a no-brainer. If your energy supply is produced locally from readily available sources such as wind, solar and geothermal, there is no dependence on outsiders, whether it be large energy corporations or foreign states for supple of your energy needs. The added bonus is the energy is clean, green and non-polluting, which in turn eliminates the expenses added by pollution, including health costs and remediation of polluted lands.
This involves both the continuing transformation of more of our world into bits, which can be transported and replicated at next to no cost, and the increasing intelligent automation of more of what makes our world run. If more of our services and products are conducted and generated online, it reduces the need for material and energy costs of doing the same thing in the analog world. Just imagine how much energy costs will be reduced by reducing dramatically the need for transportation of goods, when they can be made locally by the advancement of desktop manufacturing technologies.
Then there is the continuing network effect ov more people get online, more high quality information becoming available, and connections to people and resources becoming more relevant through semantic intelligence, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and better social networking services. And with Moore’s Law of accelerating returns we’ll continue to get computer power for less and less money. Advances in all the areas mentioned above will become accelerated too, as everyone can connect with the right people at the right time, spreading knowledge, know-how and creative solutions more rapidly than ever before.
Resiliency & Anti-Fragility and Thrivability
So what’s the result of all this? Our quality of life will improve dramatically because we’ll all be wealthier, healthier, and safer from smart growth. This will produce cost savings in the trillions per year, reductions in pollution and far greater resiliency for our world. Imagine the incredible reduction in cost when all of the materials that are currently being chewed up by mining, the cutting down of rain forests, and the pollution of lands and waters, are no longer needed. Imagine if you can get almost everything you need within 5 miles of your home. Imagine the cost reductions when food, energy and materials are all available locally through permaculture, biointensive gardening, local aquaculture, living machines, abundant clean energy and desktop manufacturing. It’s a future worth working on, and we can start building it today.