January 21, 2012
Looking through the news this week, I see that the stock market here is up, growth in China is slowing, Greece may or may not be on the verge of making a deal on its debt and the World Bank is warning of another worldwide economic downturn worse than that of 2008 if the developed nations do not get their fiscal houses in order. Depending on which economic thinker you read, this may mean governments doubling down on austerity measures, adding more monetary stimulation to their various economies or, perhaps, both at the same time. Who knows?
In the meantime, our oil-dependant world continues to pay more for less in energy as the easily accessible, high EROEI fossil fuels go the way of the dinosaurs and we become more dependent on the expensive, dirtier, harder to access dregs from deep water, arctic waters, oil sands, shale and mountain top removal for our oil, gas and coal.
In complexity theory, complex systems that lose energy become more chaotic around the edges of the system until they reach a tipping point in which they suddenly revert to a lower energy state. If they lose enough energy, the final state is collapse.
In much of the developed world, our economies have already devolved from a production based state to a debt-based state. In our current global financial system, the illusion of growth is maintained by debt and interest. But we have already begun to see what happens in this state as the flow of energy into the system tightens and decreases. Governments, financial institutions and ordinary people become increasingly unable to maintain even the interest on their debts, the lower state become ever more unstable at the edges and must devolve to yet a lower energy state or collapse.
So, while the movers and shakers continue the futile task of trying to maintain this complex world financial system in a world of diminishing energy input, what are the rest of us to do as the world economy continues downward?
I don’t know. Greater minds than mine don’t know, (though few of them will admit that.)
Right now, some are saving rather than going into debt, some are simply walking away from that debt and, for those whose lives are caught up in the chaos at the edges, we seem to have devolved to a state of increasing dependence on both governmental and non-governmental social safety nets. But, if we cannot find a way to introduce more energy into the system, this lower energy state, too, will begin to fray around the edges.
If we keep expending our decreasing energy on new ways to maintain the high energy system, the next tipping point may well be collapse. But if we can nudge the unstable state toward increasingly lower energy states, we may well find a state of low energy that will be relatively stable as far as maintaining an acceptable level of quality of life.
As I tried to point out last week, we can’t do this without letting go of our illusions and ideologies about what constitutes an acceptable quality of life. If we can’t disabuse ourselves of the religious, political or financial notions that the only acceptable way is “my way or the highway” and work together in spite of our own particular beliefs, the resulting chaos will only push us toward final collapse. I don’t think this is something our institutions can do for us any longer. I think we will have to do it for ourselves. We will have to find ways to put in place our own safety nets that give each other breathing room as we make a way for ourselves in each devolution of the economy.
There are all kinds of examples of this, both current and historical. I started thinking about this again when a friend posted about her brother and his girlfriend this week. They started their own business in this fragile economy, without going into debt and paying exhorbitant interest and are now “paying forward” the act of kindness that made it possible. http://madisonwest.channel3000.com/photo-gallery/business/64433-local-cupcake-business-pays-recent-success-forward?page=31
This, of course, started with an act of “gifting”. The original storeowner gifted them with the space to start their business within his own store. The gift which, rather than being repaid, is then passed on to the next person.
I posted an article in the Community section of this blog about time banks – the idea of “depositing” time spent helping a neighbor or community member with a task which earns you an equal amount of time from any other member of the “bank” who can offer a service you need.
Gifting in the form of food, supplies and shelter for those who have lost everything can be passed along as those people begin to recover. Leaving a gleaning during harvest, pot latches (or the modern day equivalent of community pot lucks) have a long and honorable history in moneyless or low “income” societies. In the past, community activities involving equipment in short supply or requiring a lot of time if done individually – barn or house raisings, canning and quilting bees, for example – were common neighborhood activities.
Sociologists and psychologists say that we can keep only six or seven items in our short-term memory at one time and that we do best in groups of no more than 100 to 150. As I’ve said before, even the largest cities seem to organize themselves in smaller neighborhoods along these needs.
This global, oil based economy will change – either by devolution or collapse – as fossil fuel energy becomes more scarce and expensive. The Old Order seems too set upon preserving business as usual to make the necessary changes, but we can make changes individually and within our own neighborhoods that will increase our chances of surviving the periods of chaos as the system comes down. It’s the one act of gifting we can and should give ourselves.