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TREES and Green Futurism
Jamais Cascio, 29 Mar 04

The T.R.E.E.S. project is a few years old, and therefore hardly the state of the art, but that shouldn't stop you from checking out Tree People's vision for a sustainable L.A., complete with working proposals for the redesign of single- and multi-family homes, industrial and commercial sites, even schools. It's interesting, site-specific innovation.

And disturbingly rare. We suffer from a shortage of realistic, working visions for a sustainable future which take into account both the nature of our problems today and the new tools we have at our disposal. The problem with this, of course, is that we can't build what we can't first imagine and describe.

We're deeply interested in visions of a sustainable future, and of green futurism in general. If you know a new working vision of sustainability of which we may not be aware, by all means clue us in in the comment section below!)

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Comments

Ok, well.... here's my vision: we're screwed. There's no way in hell, even with factor 10 improvements across the board, of making anything resembling the first world lifestyle sustainable.

Forget it.

We need to go back to the only sustainable model we have: peasant farmers living on the same land as their great-great-great grandparents. There are a lot of them, they're mostly organic farmers because they're too poor for fertilizers and they're 100% of the sustainable human race. *

Now, you say, nobody will buy that, nobody will live that way - and you are correct, and that's the challenge: make sustainable peasant farming an attractive enough lifestyle that people are willing, even eager, to stay there and eschew moving to the cities to take part in second-rate attempts to make the industrial revolution happen on their own ground.

The sustainable peasant farmer lifestyle needs some additions to make it workable: health care, more food stability, clean water, electric light, and perhaps telecommunications. And all of those are doable, if we put out minds to it.

That's my vision: try and make the people who're currently living sustainably more comfortable, try and get more of them to stay in that niche, and perhaps eventually try and spin down the first world experiment a little, have less people in the hyperconsumption niche... and eventually find sustainability that way.

I'm not suggesting, for a minute, any kind of retrograde motion here, no pastoralism, no yearning for the past: more a clear-eyed analysis of our lifestyles, an identification of what is sustainable and what is not, and an adaptation to it.

Pure and simple: there is no plan on the table, no matter how far sighted, which makes any close variant on the first world lifestyle look sustainable in the long term.

* hunter=gatherer tribes excepted


Posted by: Vinay on 29 Mar 04

Oh, and while I'm at it, let me launch a meme: Permafacture.

As permaculture is to agriculture - "permanent agriculture", so Permafacture is "permanent manufacture" - ways of producing goods which meed the criteria of permaculture - activities which could be done in the same space for 10,000 years.

Let me suggest, as a simple example, a large sustainable forest providing carbon-neutral fuel to a glass smelting plant which recasts existing broken glass into new forms. The old glass comes back, is melted by burning wood, and is recast. One could, in theory, run this climate-neutral plant for centuries or longer off the same base-glass if people will return their broken glass to the factory.

The challenge, and this is allied closely with the task I've outlined above talking about Global Sustainable Peasantry, is to see how much of our 21st century infrastructure we can recreate from Permafacture.

If we could permafacture steel tools, antibiotics and perhaps half a dozen other basic living tools, we'd be a lot closer to being able to talk about a genuinely sustainable society.

I really feel like current sustainability efforts are, by and large, completely unwilling to face the problem of the fundamental unsustainability of the first world lifestyle. I don't know of any roadmaps which fix it.

Do you?


Posted by: Vinay on 29 Mar 04

Hmmm. Peasant farmers as a model for future sustainability. Interesting.

Unfortunately, Vinay, there are some problems with that theory.

First, as you point out, is the non-trivial challenge that most people on the planet don't want to live that way.

Second is the fact that we don't know of *any* sustainable societies. Every single society on the planet of which we know - including hunter-gatherers - has eroded its resource base. Heck, our paleolithic ancestors wiped entire big, tasty species off the planet at the end of the last Ice Age. The rates of destruction vary, but they're there, even at very low population densities.

Which brings us around to problem three: population. We have, quite simply, no model whatsoever of a traditional way of life which would work for 9 billion people by the middle of the century (doubly so if that traditional way of life is also going to somehow support the public health, disaster remediation and so on which make large populations possible). Presuming billions of those people should go away (in other words, die) is a) obscenely immoral, and b) not real smart, as a widespread societal meltdown is the absolutely worse thing that could happen to our natural systems.

And, fourth, it's not clear that even if there *were* some sustainable past to return to, and we *could* get everyone to agree to try to return to it (and the population explosion miraculously reversed itself), that we could get there in time.

There's no going back.

Which leaves us with one option: get smart quick. Redesign the past, by retooling our economic and technological systems for truly revolutionary leaps in sustainability, redistribute the future by distributing tools for innovation, collaboration and cooperation as widely as possible... and reimagine the present by first admitting what a fix we're in and then consciously demanding that the next century be better in every regard than the last...

Now, before you protest that I haven't read your comments closely enough, let me say this: I think what you're actually describing has very little relationship to any extent or extinct traditional life. For this reason: the Enlightenment/ Industrial Revolution succeeded for a number of reasons, but the first among them is that nobody wants to live one harvest away from starvation, or watch their kids die of cholera, or be vulnerable to every rampaging band of thugs or local strongman who wants to steal what they have. Modernity has had so many willing converts because we live with propserity, safety and dignity our ancestors 500 years ago could not have imagined.

You're proposing a peasantry which retains all the benefits of modernity. I don't know if that's possible - it worth thinking about - but it certainly would not in any way resemble traditional societies, if only because it'd take a lot of educated people, who then would have to make the choice that this sort of lifestyle was worth sticking around to pursue, whereas real traditional people had no other choice. The minute they had a choice they ceased to be traditional and became part of the process of modernity. If you have options, you're not a peasant.

There's a reason they called it "tied" to the land.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 Mar 04

(this is excessively long, but hopefully interesting)

The current approach to sustainability is this: "take what's unsustainable, make it sustainable, profit." It is like a dot-com era pipe dream fueled by fossil fuels. "As long as we keep pumping energy into the system, it's going to be great". We're using the capital to pay the bills and we look pretty prosperous.

But it's going away when the natural capital runs out.

Facing that truth, accepting that the ship is sinking, is much, much harder than the traditional 1970s green stance of "run around with hair on fire and try to save things" or the 1990s green stance of "cut emissions by 15% and it'll all be fine".

Mine is a different stance: it says "there's no plan involving current or non-science-fiction technology which will result in a sustainable society" - I believe that truth to be self evident, given the available facts, although sufficiently wonderful new technologies could change it and I'm glad there are a lot of people looking for them. Perhaps we will find those revolutionary new technologies.... and perhaps we will not.

Let me model this in business terms for a moment. First World Style Civilization is a start up company running on an initial investment of coal and oil, plus ecological stability etc.

I'm suggesting that we will probably not find a "business model" which allows us to generate "wealth" faster than we're burning through our capital, and that therefore we are going to go broke.

The hope for technological solutions is equivalent to the hope we'll find a business model which works before the capital runs out, where "capital runs out" is represented by ecological crisis, running out of oil, whatever - the breaks in the system which occur when it's overstressed for too long.

Are you willing to bet the future of the human race on our ability to find that "new business model" before the venture capital runs out? I'm not. You say "let's get smart quick" but what if this isn't a matter of smart, but of hard physical limits? What if we can't invent something which makes this current system sustainable?

If we can't find the Magic Widget, it's going to fail. Is that a bet we can afford to make?

So, what's the alternative?

Something like three or four billion people are peasant farmers now, and they're sustainable over pretty long time periods in many places. Yes, the early Native Americans wiped out all manner of large and tasty beasts but, that stage completed, they fell into an equilibrium which relatively stable for many thousands of years at a time, as did the Aboriginals and various other groups. Low level agriculture has lasted a long, long time in a lot of places.

I'm suggesting that we accept that, until some basic technolgical change happens like 10c/W solar panels or Mr. Fusion or something, that we seriously look at a role reversal.

The current "ecological movement" is focused on "Make the First World Lifestyle Sustainable". I'm suggesting a different movement, the "Make the Sustainable Lifestyle Pleasant".

We *KNOW* that peasant-farmer is a niche which can be filled on the same patch of ground for many hundreds of years at a time without undue trouble. With modern scientific knowledge, we may be able to upgrade that to something even more sustainable.

That's a certainty. The rest of the ecological movement is a speculation.

You raise a lot of valid points and valid problems. Let me point out a few technological possibilities, and then address them in turn.

1> Filtron or similar ceramic water filters made with local materials and a few cents worth of high-tech.
2> Solar panels which will last for 20 years, LED lights which will last longer, and NIMH batteries which can be recharged around 1,000 times.
3> Cheap (less than $50 dollars) radio communication systems like GMRS radios.
4> Cheap computer systems, like Simputer or a Beige Box PC.
5> Cheap steel tools like axes and shovels and ploughs
6> Cheap plastic water pumps like the Super Money Maker which has had such huge impact in Nigeria
7> Mosquito nets for $40 which nearly double agricultural productivity in malarial areas

I believe that within five or ten years, for a cost of perhaps $100 per person, including purchase of one-per-village items like a computer, it will be possible to roll out systems and services which offer a radically improved quality of life for people who choose to stay in the village setting or must stay there by necessity. Some of it is possible now, and some of it is going to have to wait for semiconductor prices to fall by a few more powers of two.

This is a concrete plan: even if the Rich World finds some other approach to sustainability, the Poor World is going to need a lot of this gear anyway. Mosquito nets and pumps and water filters are products which could, and should, become as much a part of the life of the Poor Person as disposable lighters and paper are now.

Now, let's go point-by-point:

1> People don't want to live that way.
Not everybody leaves the village. Many of those who do find worse lives in shanty towns or on the streets. There aren't enough "First World Lifestyle" niches available for all the people currently caught as peasant farmers anyway. More to the point, I'm guessing that we don't find a way of making the First World Lifestyle sustainable, in which case Peasant Farmer may be the only game in town.

I mean that. The First World Lifestyle could fade away, as the lifestyles of those people who lived around a desert oasis do when that oasis dries up. If gasoline was $50 a gallon, do you think New York City would still exist?

2> Peasant Farming isn't Sustainable
True. But it's orders of magnitude (like three or four) more sustainable than the life of the average northern city dweller and with our more sophisticated science and technology, could perhaps be made permaculturally-sustainable, made permanent.

3> Population - too many people to go back
Ok, let's deal with this head on: the life-sustaining capacity of Bangladesh is falling like a rock because of climate change. The climate ruins agriculture, floods kill millions, disease runs rampant. Climate change kills people, pure and simple. The Sudan and Ethiopia were caused by a combination of drought and civil war. In short: people have exceeded the carrying capacity of their environment in many places and are dropping like flies. Across much of the world, life is brutally cheap, and the more people there are, the cheaper it gets.

If we see large scale sudden climatic shift, the Poor, the people who live harvest-to-harvest are going to be slaughtered by starvation. It's happening slowly now, but the more the environment's stability is reduced, the harder these people will be hit.

Our first-world style of agriculture, although incredibly productive, is in real trouble because of water table depletion, pesticide resistance, soil depletion, topsoil loss and so on.

Either we're going to radically increase the carrying capacity of the planet with some kind of breakthrough science or technology, or we're actually radically overpopulated, and people are going to start exhausting critical resources like water tables or climate stability, the food is going to become scarce, and people are going to start dying.

Does this sound Malthusian? It is: Malthus didn't make allowances for productivity gains, and so was simply wrong. But we're now hitting the limits of the resources used to make those productivity gains and I don't know that we can assume those curves to up to infinity, rather than rounding off.

If we have too many people for sustainable peasantry, and we don't find radical technological changes which allow us to support so many people, then we have too many people and they are going to die off.

I mean that deadly seriously, and admit it as a tragedy, but that's where we are: "Unsustainable" means people die because the ecosystem can't support them, in it's final form.

I believe we could support a lot of people as peasants. I don't know how many, but perhaps nine billion. It might require much more equal wealth distribution, but we could probably grow about that much food - after all, billions and billions of people are doing it right now, and we still have enough free resources for huge amounts of beef and veal. The planet can carry a lot of peasants, but very, very few billionaires with Lear jets.

4> Can we do it in time?
"In Time" is an interesting phrase. It suggests a concrete time limit for change. There may indeed by non-reversible catastrophic processes in play, but I think it's much more likely that we'll see steadily increasing impacts over time, and the longer we wait before changing course, the worse it will be. I think there's plenty of time to change, it's just a question of how much we'll lose first.

If gasoline is $50 a gallon, or climate shifts so severe the agriculture in Europe collapses, then yes, I think we'll do it. If nothing that severe happens, then all these stories and rumors about ecological collapse were basically nonsense and we'll deal with a little climate shift, moderate resource use a bit, and scrape by.

We might need to get hit hard before moving, but once hit hard, we do actually move. But a lot large, tangible losses might have to happen first, because people are pretty damn stubborn.

5> You're proposing a peasantry which retains all the benefits of modernity
Precisely.

Why not? I think there's some evidence it's technologically feasible to massively improve the quality of life which people in the Peasant Niche have. If we could extend that niche far enough, while keeping the ecological impact in check, then perhaps we can in fact stabilize a hell of a lot of people, perhaps over half of the world's population, right in their villages where they currently live. If they have all the benefits of modernity, then why would they wish to move to the cities, give up their sustainable life for an unsustainable one, lose their community ties etc? And, if it then turns out that the First World Lifestyle is unsustainable, in terms of "we can't do this any more, it's impossible" then at least there is a decent fallback position to live out the rest of our days (or, more likely, for our children to live out the rest of their days).

I didn't say it had to look like current peasant societies either - we're already tearing apart the social fabric of the feudal peasant worlds, and have been for hundreds of years all over the world. I'm not even sure it takes educated people to make it work, any more than it takes educated people to maintain two-stroke scooters all over the planet.

Think about it: we're betting the fate of the world on a magic widget which will make the First World Lifestyle sustainable. That's the bet you've explicitly taken, considering the alternatives unthinkable.

I'm unwilling to blindly have faith that the Magic Widget will appear and, if you're unwilling to take the vision of salvation-through-progress as an article of faith, then you have to come up with something else.

I think we should build on the practices we have which are closest to sustainability, and try and make them support a higher and higher standard of living, until staying sustainable or transitioning to sustainability seems like a feasible idea, rather than assuming that Progress Will Cure All.

This is heresy because it flies in the face of the Myth Of Progress - that things will continue to get better and better because of Progress, the All Curing God. The Disease and the Cure may not turn out to come from the same hand.

To put it another way: if the "dot com" business model of the First World, burning Natural Capital to pay the bills, is going to fail, then it's not irrational to say "well, who's income exceeds their expenses, if only marginally?" - and the answer is the peasant farmers. They're actually barely biting into their natural capital, and they are surviving.

If we put our effort into improving that niche... doing away with living harvest-to-harvest with markets and food storage, doing away with cholera with Filtrons or UV purifiers, doing away with thugs and strongmen with telecommunications, democracy and policing.... we could end up with a working ecological niche for the human species.

And that's fundamentally what this is about: Peasant Farmer and Hunter and Gatherer are basically the only remotely stable ecological niches the Human Race has so far found. We don't exist in either of those niches, considering them too uncomfortable, and therefore we have the problem of "Sustainability" which is, in other words, the problem of an organism outside of a niche it can survive in indefinitely.

We have three options:

1> Die out.
2> Make the current niche sustainable and stay there.
3> Move to other niches.

Peasant Farmer is a real niche, and half-or-so of the humans in the world live in it. Is it such a bad idea to try and put some work into making it a better niche, both for the benefit of those people, and as a contribution to long-term sustainability?

I don't think so, and if you know of a better idea which doesn't rely on as-yet-unseen technological miracles, I'd love to see it.

I didn't get to thinking this way for lack of looking at other plans, but almost all of them gloss over the basic problem: we don't know how to live within our ecological means and sustain the kind of life we have, or anything closely approximating it. Faced with that mismatch, it's time to look at new approaches!


Posted by: Vinay on 30 Mar 04

The problem is one of 'enoughness.'

Just as peasants inevitably choose to become non-peasants, the affluent choose to be more affluent. It's the same human dynamic.

A reasonably efficient manufacturing economy could create a standard of living that's more than 'enough' for all the peasants with the rising social status, and for all the affluent who choose not to become more affluent.

So it boils down to culture. Not necessarily permaculture, but the culture of Enough (and the culture of Never Enough). Cultures and economies work hand-in-hand; if a culture needs artifacts in order to do what it thinks it needs to do, then those artifacts will get manufactured, whatever the cost. And if an economy presents a new product or innovation, culture will react and perhaps adapt.


Posted by: Paul on 31 Mar 04

Vinay

Thanks, this is a fabulous and important debate.

Lots to think about in your post. Here's a long, rantish response... ;)

You write:

"We have three options:

1> Die out.
2> Make the current niche sustainable and stay there.
3> Move to other niches."

I agree. I also agree that option #2 is pretty damned difficult to imagine. My understanding of what niches are realistic (#3) differs quite a bit from yours, though.

I like this new Global Peasant idea of yours, as a thought experiment at very least. And teh kind of future you describe might well be waht we're shooting for for several billions of people around the planet.

I just don't think that it's even slightly realistic as an all-encompassing vision for humanity. Here's why:

1) ""In Time" is an interesting phrase. It suggests a concrete time limit for change"

Well, yes. We're on deadline here. Our impacts on natural systems (many of which, like climate change, lag behind our actions - i.e., even if we cut carbon by 98% today we'd still see real severe weather disaster, sea-level rise, etc. etc) are growing in magnitude, the rate of their growth is accelerating, and the amount of planet we have left to work with is shrinking faster and faster. What was possible in the early 70s, the Whole Earth/ Limits to Growth era, was no longer possible when the Earth Summit convened, and what was possible then, almost 15 years ago is no longer possible now. And what is possible in 2010 will not be possible in 2025. If we fail to change much, very little other than catastrophe may be possible by 2050.

2050 is well within my expected lifespan, and certainly within my kid's lives (assuming I meet the right person and start a family). This isn't an off-the-cuff timeline. This is the thinking of pretty much everyone who's modelled our planet and its systems.

The earlier we act and the more we change, the more ability we have to change. If our vision requires 30 years to implement, it'd better account for the 30 years of eroding natural systems, population growth, etc. that happen between now and then.

2) I believe that it is much easier to change material systems (even big, complex, expensive ones) than human minds (a paradox? perhaps). Four developed world examples: the car, the tiny house, the fashion runway, the sewers.

We could, right now, build cities where no one *needed* a car. We could, right now, start building all houses to be smaller than 700ft2, nice little cabins and efficient apartments. We could, right now, clothe everyone in the developed world in simple, sustainable, organic fabrics and long-wearing shoes. We could, right now, regard sewage as compost in the making (as most of humanity did from the invention of agriculture to the colonial period) and get everyone to build quite nice and hygenic composting toilets. These four things would take us huge strides towards sustainability.

And, by and large, they're not going to happen. Because changing people's minds about what is a desirable or even acceptible way to live is much harder than redesigning a widget.

When Bush the First said at Rio that the American lifestyle was not on the negotiating table, we was a rude and pompous jackass who displayed not a bit of leadership. He was also, unfortunately, speaking for the majority of people in the developed world (and it's worth remembering that these days the developed world includes the wealthier sections of New Delhi and Caracas, just as the developing world spills into the fields of California and the sweatshops of Alabama.)

I have, unfortunately, seen the poll numbers and the focus group reports and the research papers. The results are extremely clear: the vast majority of the world's billion or so wealthier people are extremely unwilling to imagine more humble circumstances for themselves and their children. Many are, indeed, willing to go to war to defend their ways of life.

That doesn't mean they/we have lost all sense of sanity and balance. The environment is, and will increasingly be, a factor in purchasing decisions, etc. I think that for the generation coming up, more or less folks under 30, ecological issues loom fairly large (certainly polls I've seen show a surge of ecological awareness in generation X and a big wave in generation Y, at least in the rich world [anyone know of any numbers for generational views on the environment in the poorer chunks of the world?]).

It is probably within our ability to pull a Viridian and make ecological upgrades of our current systems socially irresistable.

It may be within our ability to make sexy the transformation to new systems which provide similar or greater prosperity on a radically more sustainable basis.

3) But do we have those systems? Now? No.

We do not have Western Civilization 2.0 - the sustainable version - ready to load.

But are we limited to current technologies? Clearly not. If we were, there would be no sustainble lifestyle imnaginable anywhere on the planet, period. Even Global Peasants would need technlogical innovation to pull it off.

3a) Which makes this a good place for a digression. Some peasant societies have been unsustainable in ways that could last for millenia, barring catastrophe. A very few have been unsustable at rates which are so slow as to appear sustainable within a given human lifespan. But a great many more have chewed through their resource bases like a puppy through a crepe-soled slipper. Native American cultures look to have routinely exhausted their resource bases over the last 10,000 years in a great many places. And such ways of living become more destructive as resources wear thin.

And, even more to the point, traditional lifestyles demanded pretty strict population controls. Hunting and gathering in a given mountain valley may be pretty sustainable with a band of 20, less so with a tribe of 100 and downright catastrophic with a tribe of 1,000. But everywhere in the world we are in the tribe of 1,000 stage (if not 10,000, oer 100,000). Dave Foreman, teh Earth First! guy, has been a big proponent of going back to the Pleistocene. He and some of his colleagues estimated that no more than 20 million people could live on the Earth. So the pre-requisite for his plan (unstated, of course) is that over six billion of our fellow people - at least a third of them kids - die.

People who talk that way are not on my side.

3b) Nor are they on the side of the planet, I think. If anything is worse for the planet than large populations with growing desires, it's large populations is crisis, terror and chaos. An "over-populated" tradional village will eat its surrounding natural systems over time; a horde of refugees will do it in no time at all.

If overshoot is followed by collapse, collapse will involve even worse destruction of the planet, its climate, its biodiversity and its other natural systems than anything else we can imagine.

Completely beyond the humanitarian implications -- and we need to be real clear that we're talking about scenes of apocolyptic horror here, scenes that'll make us forget all about the Holocaust -- any scenario involving collapse on a widespread scale is a game-over scenario for the environment as well.

We may, as some do, hope for a "soft landing" - a gradual plateau of population growth around the middle of the century (perhaps as few as 8 billion if we get lucky) followed by a long, slow sensible reduction in population over the centuries that follow, as the world becomes more like Italy or Japan and has fewer and fewer children per household, later and later in life.

But to get into a position to have a soft landing, we need to create a society that can last that long without chewing up the planet or disintegrating into chaos and collapse.

4) But back to technology, systems, etc.

I agree that we need technological leaps which are a long way from being readily available, that even factor ten doesn't get us there. We need transformation.

Here's the wild card: the rate of technological change is clearly increasing, perhaps even exponentially. Whatsmore, our ability to innovate and to guide innovation collaboratively towards public goods is starting to really take off.

Even more importantly, I think our understanding of how to change systems, of the uses of innovation diffusion, of the political and policy levers needed, of the means of cultural and memetic work, of social entrepreneurship, of livelihood-based development, of the creation of civil society, etc. etc. -- of in short, how to change the world -- is exploding right now.

I think it is entirely conceivable, the idea of sustainable prosperity based on technological innovation, political reform and societal change. Indeed, there are more and more examples of parts of this being possible, now.

As I've written elsewhere, these days, the widening gap between what's conceivable and what we're doing sometimes discourages, but the narrowing gap between what's conceivable and what's possible electrifies.

5) is it a gamble? Absolutely. It's the greatest wager the human race has placed since we came down out of the trees.

We're risking everything on the chance that we are smart, creative and wise enough to redesign and transform our entire civilization before the clock runs out.

If we lose, our grandchildren are in for unimaginable disasters, including a possibility of extinction.

If we choose not to play, given the realities of the world, they almost certainly are in for a terribly grim future.

But if we win... if we win, well, there's no reason to believe that this is not in fact humanity's low point, that things could not only not collapse, but could continue to get better and better, that we could see millenia of progress and prosperity, of cultural flowerings, the fruits of real statesmanship (stability, justice, peace, freedom), of real harmony with the planet and its natural systems, of ecological healing and societal reverance for the wonders of nature.

I am willing to believe that humanity's best days are still ahead. Are you?


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 31 Mar 04

I'm going to refer to the approach you're talking about as "Technosocial Revolution," - I hope that's an acceptable and non-pejorative shorthand :-). I'll call my approach "Global Sustainable Peasantry" likewise!

> I am willing to believe that humanity's best days are still ahead. Are you?

Yes.

And I agree with pretty much everything you say, in as much as you make the terms of the gamble very clear: massive technosocial revolution within our lifetimes, or bust.

The "Global Sustainable Peasantry" model is only really useful in two cases:

1> As a way of thinking about poverty, and cheap tech-fixes to make poverty less horrible until people become more wealthy.

2> As a response to the potential failure of the "Technosocial Revolution" model.

I believe that "Technosocial Revolution" has a shot - I think we could see a $0.10 / Watt solar panel within 20 years which would make the Renewable-driven Hydrogen economy a reality. It could happen. We could see a one-shot, no-side-effects, five-years-of-sterility birth control solution, an aids vaccine, and soil-maintaining crop varieties in the same time period, and it could all work out fine. It's all possible.

But success is not inevitable, and it's also possible we'll get a lot of that stuff, and continue to trash the planet by draining the water tables and dumping toxins which mangle the ecosystem in hideous new ways, fail to control population growth, and still drive the world into chaos and catastrophy.

As I said before in different words: are you willing to bet the future of the human race on the Technosocial Revolution succeeding? If it fails, what's the alternative? What's the Backup Plan?

The goal of the "Global Sustainable Peasantry" model is to provide people with an alternative to annhilation if the Technosocial Revolution fails.

If we can show people a life they could live, and that their children's ninth-generation children could live - a life which keeps many of the benefits of progress, while returning to the Sustainable Peasant niche, I think we can reasonably talk about saving much of what made Industrial Culture great and not trash the planet, even if the Technosocial Revolution simply never materializes.

"Look, it's not fantastic, but you can have absolute sustainability, electrical light, steel tools, a bicycle and vaccines - and we could keep this up for generations without further problems" - that's the offer of Global Sustainable Peasantry.

If we fall, don't fall back to the stone age. Fall back to bicycles, and keep the vaccines.

That's the model: maintain areas where incredibly high technology is required, things like chip fabs for LEDs and microprocessors, vaccines, medicines etc. but accept that we might only have a hundred million people in that niche, and the rest of humanity will live on the land, growing most of what the eat, and doing 95% of their trade within a day's bicycle ride of their homes.

Produce just enough of the unsustainable-nasty that we can't make cleanly to get by, but not enough to trash the world: if we need LED lights, by all means make them, but only as many as are needed and not more, to minimize the pollution associated with the processes.

How many people could the earth carry at that level of development? I don't know - certainly less than if the Technosocial Revolution succeeds - but definitely more than if the TR fails. What happens if we *don't make it* Alex? That's the core question on my mind.

If we don't succeed, what's the alternative? Are we going to trash the world riding it out to the bitter end, or are we going to come up with an alternative which keeps as much of the good stuff as we can, but lives within proven sustainable niches?

I'm for that plan: try for Technosocial Revolution, give it a shot, but stand ready to pick up the pieces if it fails. Find a minimum-impact approach to keeping vital technologies in circulation, but accept that the human race as a whole winds up as peasant farmers again if we can't pull off the change you suggest.

Would it be such a bad life? Is Peasant Agriculture with good tools, reasonable medicine, and a few high-tech gadgets really so unthinkable?

I can imagine growing old in such a world and looking back on the Fossil Fuel days with some fondness... but no regrets about how things turned out.


Posted by: Vinay on 31 Mar 04

I don’t see why both “The Technosocial Revolution” and the Global Sustainable Peasantry” cannot happen at the same time. Why is it an either or? Isn’t is possible (and morally right) to make the lives of the poor peasantry better while at the same time making the first world life style more sustainable.

In fact I would offer that many of the positive conditions of one could be the solution for the other. For example, industrial ecology (see: http://www.indigodev.com/IE.html for a summery) something that most peasant communities do at some level out of necessity (they’re to poor to waste) is being offered as a new paradigm to fix many of the problems those of us who think we are rich enough to waste have.

Industrial ecology also points to the fact that there is a ton of waste in this society. It is not like we have tried our best and just can’t make ourselves environmentally friendly. I also don’t think that options, at least for the sort term, are completely abandon the first world life style or fall. Industrial ecology (to name one of the new ideas) shows us that if we change the process we can still get what we want and it can be much more environmentally friendly and more efficient. Now industrial ecology, under current life style demands is not sustainable it could by us time. Also it shows that future success might be about showing people that if they want their plastic coke bottle they have to recycle it. An over simplification, I know, but I believe that people want to do good by this planet, the one they live on and depend on as well.

Alex wrote: “I have, unfortunately, seen the poll numbers and the focus group reports and the research papers. The results are extremely clear: the vast majority of the world's billion or so wealthier people are extremely unwilling to imagine more humble circumstances for themselves and their children. Many are, indeed, willing to go to war to defend their ways of life…” If people are unwilling to imagine a different future, then those of us who are should show them some. Some different futures where the things they really care about, children, food, water, shelter, security are all theirs, to keep for as long as they or their children want it. I think the real problem is that people think what we have now is the only way to get what to keep and protect what they really care about, which isn’t their TV.

Many different people have chosen to imagined different futures for themselves. For example, the back to the land movements of the 60’s. Although I’m sure these are wrought with environmental troubles, they prove that some people are willing to make those choices, are willing to become peasants. Why? What makes them different from all those pollsters willing to fight for what they have now? I think it is that they realized they could keep and in fact enhance the quality and access to the things they wanted. This is not to suggest this is a picturesque life style or that all these people are happy, but to say that people have made these choices and that maybe there should be an effort to make these choices even better so that more people will make them. It is about providing those life styles that this planet can sustain with the well-being (as defined by Amartya Sen, with the freedom to attain ones potential) that people desire.


Posted by: Eli Steffen on 31 Mar 04

Eli, I agree that there's no reason not to do both, however, I do still feel the need to puncture the bubble around most plans about sustainability: as I said above, even if we manage a Factor 10 reduction across the board, our environmental impact will still trash the world, just a little more slowly.

And that's the heart of what I was trying to say: we don't currently have any models, even when fully implemented, which result in sustainability for first world culture. Even the most optimistic guesses about the savings of Closed Loop Industrial Ecologies don't get us anywhere near the ballpark of "Sustainable First World Lifestyle."

I'm not even talking about the realities or the practicalities, I'm just talking about the theories.

Everybody measures their model by reduction-in-current-damage, and not against "closeness to actual sustainable resource use" and that's a huge, critical mistake. We need to measure against how far we have to go, and not how far we have come if we're ever going to reach the goal of sustainability.

PS: You can see some work I did with the Rocky Mountain Institute about modeling closed-loop industrial ecologies in a Natural Capitalism framework here:

http://mushika.co.uk/ecology/

The model is under a Creative Commons intellectual property license, so it can be used and modified freely.


Posted by: Vinay on 1 Apr 04

Hey, thanks for pointing to the debate here :-)

However, you are simply wrong when you say there's no model that supports sustainability at first world levels. There is. David Criswell of the University of Houston has been talking about one version of it for over 20 years, including a presentation to the US Senate a few months ago.

The problem is, Criswell's solution cannot be accomplished by small private means, but requires extremely large levels of government support over an extended period. Other versions of the solution may be deployable for significantly less up-front money, even by for-profit corporations - but the benefits will be less and there has still been no government support for the technology since Ronald Reagan started his presidency.

What technology am I talking about?

Think about what the fundamental problem is here: supporting large numbers of people in first-world lifestyles requires large levels of resource usage. All such resources are renewable IF you have enough energy to reverse the process of destruction. The only fundamental non-renewable is energy itself.

And what is the original source of (almost all) our energy? The Sun! And the sun puts out about 10 billion times as much energy as that received by Earth, 100 trillion times as much as we humans actually use. There is no shortage of energy, IF you expand your horizons beyond the surface of the Earth. And if there's no shortage of energy, there's no shortage of any other resource, either.

Criswell's proposal is to use the Moon to collect solar power, and beam that to Earth; there is enough energy in his proposal (which uses less than 1 percent of the Moon's surface) to support energy usage levels 10 times what humans use today.

Personally, I think orbital solar power satellites are a much more viable option, due to the much lower up-front cost, even if marginal costs may be higher than for a lunar system.

Whatever the government does, continued improvements in solar power technology and space launch costs will make these commercially practical in perhaps 20 years. Government investment in the relevant technologies could cut that time dramatically; we could start to put a dent in our real problems before 2010, if we really wanted to.

But nobody really wants to address the problem, they refuse to admit the scale, or accept defeat as those on this thread seem to have done.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 1 Apr 04

Arthur,

I certainly haven't given up on Ultratechnology fixes, whether they be $0.10/w solar panels, fusion reactors or the plan you raise for space-based power collection. However, the twin questions are:

1> What if we simply never build it?

and

2> What if it fails?

Never forget the lesson of Nuclear power: "electricity too cheap to meter" became "the everlasting toxic legacy" in about thirty years.

Every technology looks different when you have to live with it. Perhaps this system would be fantastic... and perhaps it would have some unseen side-effect which would show up on pilot plants and screw up the entire deal. Seeing is believing.


Posted by: Vinay on 2 Apr 04

Vinay -

1> What if we simply never build it?

Well, there's obviously not much sign of it so far, so this is a strong possibility. If we don't do it, we're doomed to something like you predict with sustainability, or all the consequences (war, famine, etc.) of non-sustainability.

2> What if it fails?
There are a number of technical and economic criteria that need to be met - perhaps we will not be able to. But refusing to spend any research and development dollars on the problem because "it might fail" is a complete abdication. There are no guarantees in life, obviously, and we should be keeping all our options open.

So what I try to argue is simply that development of space resources, particularly space solar power, is an immensely better investment of our tax dollars than the billions of dollars in subsidies for oil and gas exploration, coal synfuel production, or fission and fusion R&D.

Those technologies have already had billions spent, and are proven failures as far as sustainability and environmental stewardship goes. Space power has had a tiny fraction of that spent on it, and so far still looks extremely promising.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 2 Apr 04

Vinay -

1> What if we simply never build it?

Well, there's obviously not much sign of it so far, so this is a strong possibility. If we don't do it, we're doomed to something like you predict with sustainability, or all the consequences (war, famine, etc.) of non-sustainability.

2> What if it fails?
There are a number of technical and economic criteria that need to be met - perhaps we will not be able to. But refusing to spend any research and development dollars on the problem because "it might fail" is a complete abdication. There are no guarantees in life, obviously, and we should be keeping all our options open.

So what I try to argue is simply that development of space resources, particularly space solar power, is an immensely better investment of our tax dollars than the billions of dollars in subsidies for oil and gas exploration, coal synfuel production, or fission and fusion R&D.

Those technologies have already had billions spent, and are proven failures as far as sustainability and environmental stewardship goes. Space power has had a tiny fraction of that spent on it, and so far still looks extremely promising.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 2 Apr 04

No argument from me that we should be trying to point our civilization at sustainability! Rational spending policies are a Good Thing, and I think that every avenue should be explored...

Let's just not forget that, in at least a couple of different, detailed, well regarded studies, we could save between 50% and 75% of our current power consumption in the commercial sector *at*a*net*profit* and it's hard to beat that with any other technology.

Of course, we haven't done it on a wide scale, but that's the most promising initial approach of all.


Posted by: Vinay on 2 Apr 04

First off, a very stimulating discussion! It's great to see creative disagreement instead of the usual Internet slanging match.

Seems to me that we all want a TR, but as Vinay points out, it's far from clear that one is actually achievable. The real question is how to allocate our investments - do we spend most of our efforts & social capital on driving a Revolution, or on facilitating the sustainable peasantry approach?

I'd argue that low-tech innovations like the water filters Vinay mentions above are a fantastic way to go - they improve the quality of life of today's peasantry and may save all our asses in the event that the deus ex machina doesn't come. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't even think about space elevators, Mr Fusion, or other transformative breakthroughs, but focusing only in those is a very high-risk strategy for humanity.

Socially, I agree with Alex that sustainable peasantry is a really hard sell, and can't see it being widely adopted unless there really aren't any alternatives left. If you want to get a 1st-worlder to actively seek out living as you envisage, the first thing you'll need is one hell of a marketing effort - and a better name! 'Peasant' has so many bad connotations that you *have* to ditch it.



Posted by: Edwin on 3 Apr 04

True on the Peasant tag :-).

I *definitely* don't see GSP as anything other than a last-ditch strategy for the first world: we'd have to be dragged there kicking and screaming.

I'm much more hopeful for it as a model in the developing world, and indeed, the goverment of India is talking about a scheme with some broad similarities:

http://www.tifac.org.in/do/vis/otherrural.htm

PURA - Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas - A scheme to make rural areas more attractive than cities.

It's an interesting read.


Posted by: Vinay on 3 Apr 04



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