Toward An Economy Of Earth
By Guy R. McPherson
03 February, 2012
We need to develop a new economy because the current version is not working. The industrial economy is destroying every aspect of the living planet. And, as it turns out, we need a living planet for our own survival.
In this essay, I briefly describe the horrors of the current interconnected, globalized, planet-destroying house of cards. Then I articulate another way, which is not difficult to do: It would pose quite a challenge to come up with a worse way, and we have several models from which to choose. I will focus on two such models, agrarian anarchy and the post-industrial Stone Age.
Detailing all that is wrong with the industrial economy would require libraries full of books. The cryptic version includes, at a minimum, the following: (1) an industrial economy at the apex of western civilization, a set of living arrangements that transfers financial wealth from the poor to the wealthy; (2) human-population overshoot on an overcrowded planet; (3) runaway climate change on an overheated planet; and (4) wholesale destruction of the living planet. The latter brings an extinction rate of a few hundred species each day, along with destruction of potable water and living soil.
In short, as I wrote in the leading journal in my discipline, “the modern world essentially requires one to live immorally. There is no doubt that a society that enslaves, tortures, and kills people and abuses the lands and waters needed for the survival of our species and others is immoral, yet these actions are produced with stunning efficiency by the world’s industrial economy, as epitomized by American empire. Most people know that Big Energy poisons our water, Big Ag controls our food supply, Big Pharma controls the behavior of our children, Wall Street controls the flow of money, Big Ad controls the messages we receive every day, and the criminally rich get richer through exploitation of an immoral system. This is how America works. And, through it all, we think we live moral lives in the land of the free.”
It should be clear that the industrial economy is making us sick, mentally and physically, and also greatly reducing habitat for our species on Earth. As a result, I’m a big fan of terminating this set of living arrangements — that is, I’m a fan of terminating industrialized civilization — and replacing it with a more sane and durable set of living arrangements.
Alternatives abound, and generally rest along a continuum ranging from the current system to the post-industrial Stone Age. I will consider three points along the continuum: (1) the current system, which must be replaced if we are to persist as a species beyond a few decades, (2) agrarian anarchy, and (3) the post-industrial Stone Age.
The current system: industrial economy
The contemporary version of civilization is creating a dire set of predicaments: human-population overshoot, climate chaos, and an unparalleled extinction crisis. It is the primary problem we face. As such, I think it’s time to leave it behind before it leaves us. Considering the ongoing, accelerating collapse of the industrial economy and the virtual absence of national- or international-level discussion about mitigation, I strongly suspect our society is headed for the post-industrial Stone Age within a matter of years, not decades. But communities and the individuals comprising communities have the option of choosing between agrarian anarchy and the post-industrial Stone Age.
Anarchy assumes the absence of direct or coercive government as a political ideal, while proposing cooperative and voluntary association between individuals and groups as the principal mode for organizing society. This close-to-nature, close-to-our-neighbors approach was the Jeffersonian ideal for the United States, as evidenced by Monticello and the occasional one-liner from Thomas Jefferson. It was also the model promoted by Henry David Thoreau and, more recently, radical thinkers such as Wendell Berry (farmer, writer), Noam Chomsky (linguist, philosopher), Howard Zinn (recently deceased historian), and Tucson-based iconoclastic author Edward Abbey.
Consider, for example, a few well-known lines from Thomas Jefferson: (1) “The result of our experiment will be, that man may be trusted to govern themselves without a master”; (2) I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it”; and (3) “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Although Jefferson did not call himself an anarchist, his words and ideals indicate he strongly supported the rights and role of individuals, as well as a small government that minimally oversaw the citizenry. The Greco-Latin roots of anarchy suggest the absence of a ruler, which seems like a good idea to me.
Like Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau idealized an agricultural society that was close to nature. Thoreau was a staunch defender of agrarian anarchy, and he focused even more closely on the individual than did Jefferson: “That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” To my knowledge, no state governments believe we’ve yet reached that point.
Fast forward to the late twentieth century, and we find several other philosophers defending agrarian anarchy. Perhaps the best known examples are Wendell Berry, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn, but the clearest voice for agrarian anarchy came from Edward Abbey in the years before he died in 1989: (1) “Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners”; (2) “Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others”; and (3) “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”
In my dreams, industrialized nations are headed for agrarian anarchy. Many countries have been there for years and can show us the way, if only we allow them. If a region never acquired ready access to cheap fossil fuels, agrarian anarchy was an obvious approach. How else but a strong sense of self-reliance and dependence on neighbors to grow and distribute all food locally? How else but reliance on those same traits to secure the water supply, and protect it from the insults of industry? How else to develop a human community dominated by mutual respect and mutual trust? Contrary to our current set of living arrangements, no currency is needed: barter fills the bill. Better yet, a gift economy is well-suited to agrarian anarchy.
Post-industrial Stone Age
The first two million years of the human experience, and the first few hundred thousand years for our own species, was spent with relatively small communities living close to the land that supported them. These humans knew each other and they knew the plants and animals with which they shared the area. They had minimal impact on the lands and waters that supported them. These humans spent a few hours each week doing what we call “work,” making sure the members of the community were well-hydrated, well-fed, and warm. This was a durable set of living arrangements, as characterized by its longevity and minimal impact on Earth.
We arrogantly and disparagingly refer to this time as the Stone Age.
The first civilization arose a few thousand years ago. Civilization is characterized by cities. In other words, civilization is defined by by human populations too large to be supported in the local area. Cities require use of clear air, clean water, and healthy food from adjacent wildlands, as well as materials to ensure body temperature is maintained at about 37 C. In exchange, cities export dirty air, polluted water, and garbage to outlying areas. Most civilized people think this is a wonderful exchange, although it is unsustainable by definition because there are limits on nature’s abundance.
The current version of civilization, the world’s industrial economy, is the least sustainable model to date, in part because it requires growth for its survival: Civilizations, like organisms, grow or die. This finite planet cannot support infinite growth.
The world’s industrial economy mainlines ready supplies of inexpensive crude oil. The lifeblood of western civilization, cheap oil infuses our daily lives. Petroleum products transport us easily and conveniently, thus allowing for exchange of materials and ideas. Without inexpensive crude oil to deliver water, food, and building materials, the world’s industrial economy declines.
Each of the six worldwide economic recessions since 1972 was preceded by a spike in the price of crude oil, and the days of cheap oil are behind us. At the global level, peak extraction of crude oil occurred in May 2005. A modest decline in available crude oil, coupled with increased industrialization in lesser-developed countries such as China, India, and Brazil, indicates further spikes in the price of oil lie in our future. That the world has nearly a trillion barrels of crude oil remaining to exploit hardly matters: The price of oil is key to growth of the industrial economy. There is little doubt that future spikes in the price of oil will prove sufficient to terminate the industrial economy, taking us on a one-way trip to the post-industrial Stone Age. Already, expensive oil is overwhelming the ability of central banks and central governments to provide the illusion of economic growth by printing fiat currency. As nearly occurred in 2008 in the wake of oil priced at $147.27 per barrel, western civilization faces an abrupt termination in the face of expensive crude oil.
It is unclear what the future holds. I suspect completion of the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy will engender short-term but large-scale mortality of humans. Shortly thereafter, all “renewable” energy systems will fail because they depend heavily on maintenance and support from oil-driven industries. The batteries associated with most home-based PV solar and wind-energy systems have a life of a decade or so. When collapse of the industrial economy is complete and is followed by inability to generate electricity via “renewable” systems, it seems humans will be forced to live — yet again — close to our neighbors and close to the natural systems that allow for our survival. That is, we’ll be immersed in the post-industrial Stone Age, albeit with plenty of technology that was not present during the Neolithic period. The simplest of these technologies, including knives and jars, will be readily usable for a long time. The more complex technologies, especially those relying on electricity, will fade quickly from our memories.
An economy based on gift exchange
The current version of the industrial economy has most people obsessed with the tertiary economy (symbolic, green pieces of paper and magnetized particles on hard drives). A few thoughtful individuals focus instead on the secondary economy (the items we use in our daily lives), which rests firmly on the foundational but rarely contemplated primary economy. The primary economy is comprised of the raw materials we use to survive, and perhaps even thrive. Faith in the symbols characterizing the tertiary economy will be lost when people recognize there are too few items of use (secondary economy) and too few underlying materials (primary economy). One result will be a profound loss of power in the symbols.
An economy based on exchange of gifts worked for the first two million years of the human experience and, due to collapse of the industrial economy certain to result from ongoing decline of fossil-fuel energy, we’re headed toward a similar set of circumstances. We would do well to allow history to serve as a guide to our fossil-fuel-free future. Our current monetary system is based on faith in symbols and it appears to give us something for nothing. Instead, it steals our sense of community.
People with an abundance of paper wealth have no need to build their human community. Their wealth allows them to buy goods and services, so they need not know the names of the people providing the services. Ditto for the names of the plants, animals, soils, and water providing the services on which we depend for our survival.
On the other hand, financially poor people depend heavily on their neighbors. The rural poor recognize that those neighbors include non-humans as well as humans. True community is woven from gifts, and the gifts come from the lands and waters that support us, as well as from our human neighbors.
A personal example
I had the brass ring. And I let it go. My parents were lifelong educators. So are my only brother and my only sister. Among them, only I reached the pinnacle of the educational world: I was a tenured full professor by the age of 40. I walked away from that life, which I loved, an act that made most people think I’d lost my mind. I walked away after trying to change the morally bankrupt system in which we are immersed when I realized the system was changing me, and not for the better.
I let go of the brass ring after I realized the first step toward destroying this irredeemably corrupt system is to leave it. Because I was born into captivity and assimilated into the normalcy bias of a world gone bonkers, I left later than I should have, and long after I realized the immorality of the system. A large part of this delay resulted from my inability to identify where and how to leave the system. I had come to see the industrial economy at the apex of western civilization as a horrific system but, because it was the only system I ever knew, I didn’t know how to escape it. Finally, after several years of thought and a few aborted attempts to reach escape velocity, my wife and I developed a set of living arrangements on a small property with another small family where we try to model agrarian anarchy.
When I finally tossed aside the brass ring, I worked cooperatively with others to develop to transition toward a gift economy embedded in agrarian anarchy. I live in a small, sparsely populated valley where gifts are the rule, not the exception. I share a small property with a small family of humans, as well as goats, ducks, chickens, and gardens. We have attempted, and continue to attempt, to develop a durable set of living arrangements with particular attention to securing potable, healthy food, appropriate body temperature, and a decent human community. Living in agrarian anarchy in a human community at the edge of empire, I’ve taken responsibility for myself and my neighbors, human and otherwise.
This way of living is far superior to my former life. I drink pure water extracted from a local well with PV solar and hand pumps. I eat healthy, whole foods, much of which is grown on this property. I burn no fossil fuels during my daily life in a well-insulated, off-grid home. I know my neighbors, human and otherwise, and they know me.
Finally, very late in an unexamined life, I came to see the horrors of the way we live, and I let go. Please join me.
Guy McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. He's written well over 100 articles, ten books, the most recent of which is Walking Away From Empire, and has focused for many years on conservation of biological diversity. He lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house where he practices durable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of his
rural community. Learn more at guymcpherson.com or email Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org
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