Shifting to the Downscaling Paradigm

I’ve been reading a lot of interesting items online recently that for some reason seem to be coalescing into a common thread in my brain.

  • Fellow Groovy Green contributor Miranda has an interesting post on our culture’s sense of entitlement, and how it’s furthering our destruction of the planet and leading to overconsumption of our non-renewable resources. On a personal scale, we buy into the incessant marketing of non-essential crap that we are programmed to think we ‘need’ to live the ‘good life’ and show others how hip and wealthy we are. On a macro-economic scale, nations are treating commodities in a similar way, with the additional twist that for them, it’s a zero-sum game. Regardless of whether you look at oil, grain, industrial metals, freshwater or other resources, there simply isn’t enough of anything to go around anymore, and the dominant economic nations of the world have embarked on a mad scramble to secure what they feel they ‘need’ to thrive. With the exception of Iraq, most of these activities are happening under the media radar so far; how long that will remain the case is anyone’s guess.

  • I’ve started reading Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael,” and I’m intrigued by the premise that our world culture has a creation myth, namely that the man is the pinnacle of evolution, and therefore the world is ours for the taking and despoiling. We are ‘entitled’ to treat Earth any way we see fit. Earth functioned just fine for eons before we arrived, and if we are dumb enough to destroy ourselves, then it will survive our folly. As the book states, we have the cultural story that we are the end-all and be-all of Earth’s evolution, and that if we are just given enough time, we will conquer the planet and bend it totally to our will. The flaw in this plan, of course, is human nature. We are too greedy, too short-sighted, and too envious to make this happen, so instead of turning the world into a paradise, we are slowly turning it into hell. Yet, we still believe that creating paradise is our ultimate purpose, so we continue working at that goal, and wonder why more and more people seem to see Armgeddon hurtling toward us.
  • Looking at the economy, storm clouds continue to gather on the horizon. Jim Willie has another excellent overview of some of the major issues confronting the United States in coming months. Most Americans are clueless about the true state of the economy, since the Dow continues to hit new highs, and the housing market appears to be stabilizing. This is only part of the picture. At the same time, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is warning Congress that our entitlement pledges to the Boomer generation are going to destroy our children’s economic futures, and the slow death of subprime lenders appears to be gaining momentum. The more I read about things, the more I am convinced that an economic crisis will be the first thing that hits us, assuming that we don’t do something idiotic like attack Iran.
  • The oil production picture is starting clear up. Mexico and the United Kingdom appear to be starting a rapid decline in production levels, Saudi Arabia is telling everyone that their production cuts are voluntary, but they aren’t showing anyone the facts about their true reserves, and the largest under-utilized oil reserves in the world conveniently happen to have 150,000+ US troops garrisoning them. At the same time, North American natural gas production is projected to start dropping, which is very bad news for those of us who rely on the stuff to keep warm in wintertime. How far will heating costs rise before Americans and Canadians start crying uncle? How many people reliant on natgas-fired electrical generators will start feeling a serious pinch
  • Jeffrey Brown, a regular, respected poster on the Oil Drum, has been pushing two concepts recently as a partial solution to America’s oil predicament: Alan Drake’s proposal to electrify much of our transportation network (think electric rail, LRT and trolleys), and redevelop the areas around these lines with ‘tiny houses.’ These houses would be much closer in size to the houses built 100 years ago, and would emphasize features over square footage. One manufacturer of such houses has plans ranging from 160 SF (for 1 or possible two occupants) to a shade over 1000 SF (a family dwelling, if you will), much smaller than the average house being built today. Clustering such houses in small lots near public transportation could save a lot of energy use if it were to be publicly embraced.
  • On a related note, Jim Kunstler has been promoting a similar meme in recent speeches.

The generations of Americans living today have grown up in a world of constant growth. Bigger is better; more is better. How we will react to some real belt-tightening will be very interesting (if painful) to see. An 800-1000 SF house would be cheaper to build, cheaper to heat and cool, have a smaller footprint (resulting in higher population densities), and it would force the owners own less stuff (just how much crap can you really store in a small house?). All of these things are beneficial to a society coming to grips with resource constraints, but it doesn’t sync with the cultural story we all have been programmed to believe is our birthright.

If you think about it, pretty much everything in our culture revolves around growth. Here are a few examples:

  • “Be fruitful and multiply” – For millennia growing the population has been seen as the primary path to political respectability. An expanding population has a growing demand for resources.
  • Our whole financial system depends on growth. Without an expanding money supply (i.e. fractional-reserve banking), people have no reason to put their money in banks. Companies must grow their profits every quarter or their stock price will be punished.
  • Every group out there, whether political, religious or other seems to be focused on growing it’s membership rolls as fast as they can. More numbers means more clout, more respectability, and more money.

We feel entitled to a number of things, including cheap goods, cheap food, automobiles, a long retirement, high-quality government services and entitlements, and (paradoxically) low tax rates. If the planet and the economy go to hell in a hand-basket, odds are good we may no longer be able to have any of these things. What will we do at that point?

In a shrinking economy, downscaling is the only rational plan of action. Things will come to that eventually, I fear; I do wonder how we all will react when it comes to that.

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2 Responses to Shifting to the Downscaling Paradigm

  1. Jared says:

    I remember reading Ishmael back in high-school. Not sure if you’ve heard of the School of Environmental Studies (it’s located in my hometown) but Ishmael, and a few other books by Daniel Quinn, are on the required reading list, so I tried them out on the advice of my friends.
    Another one you may want to explore, depending on how much time you have left, is The Chalice and the Blade. Not particularly relevant to current events, but another interesting way of looking at old influences on our mainstream worldview.

  2. Bart says:

    I haven’t heard of the school…. probably came into existence long after I graduated.

    Ishmael was an interesting book, and I plan on getting ahold of the rest of Quinn’s books if possible. I’ll see if I can find Chalice and the Blade as well.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

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