Christian De Leon-Horton (echodog) Tue 13 Sep 11 22:23
I too would like to hear the answer to divinea's question, as I think it goes right to the heart of the implications on entering the next global depression. I suspect there's no easy answer.
John Robb (johnmrobb) Wed 14 Sep 11 15:16
Ok. Community. The transition towns approach to grass roots organizing is pretty solid. Here's their formula: http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2008/04/transition-town.h tml Develop a steering group to get it started (a foco). Five people is recommended. Plan to disband this group when things get started. Raise awareness (basic education on the effects of black swans). Network with existing groups (go open source). An event to launch the initiative (the great unleashing). Form working groups. Leverage activity with technology (social tech). Develop visible examples of progress. Reskilling and teaching (sharing skills/knowledge). Connect to the government (financial risks). Connect to elders (narratives and skills). Let it run itself. Complete the effort by formalizing a plan through the contributions of the sub-groups.
John Robb (johnmrobb) Wed 14 Sep 11 15:25
The Transition Towns approach is focused on reducing energy consumption and growing food locally. However, that isn't enough. In order to deal with a deep and seemingly endless depression, we need to jump start economic activity locally. To do that requires the following. 1) Spaces. 2) Platforms. 3) Production. Setting up spaces for innovation is critical to developing solutions. That includes everything from hackerspaces (places where people share equipment, including 3D printers to make things) to seed libraries to tool libraries. A platform is a way to accelerate activity that would otherwise be difficult to do solo. It's a shared system that does routine tasks automatically. Connections are easy. The more people that use a platform, the stronger it should get. Platforms range from community microgrids (for local power production and distribution) to composting systems to farmers markets. Community production is an important activity. Locally producing something in abundance that people need, whether it is energy or food or water or products, is a critical activity. Having the capacity to produce it, even on a small scale, could be the difference between a community that makes it or not.
John Robb (johnmrobb) Wed 14 Sep 11 15:41
Whether it is a collapse or a depression really depends on where you live. Will the entire system stop functioning in a year or two. Probably not. Will it fall into long running depression due to financial collapse? That's getting more likely by the day (I have a couple of chapters in the book I'm working on that explains why it will occur). I believe that a global depression in the modern context will be much, much worse than the previous global depression. Governments will hollow out (all show and no substance). Supply lines will break. There will be shortages, rationing, extreme poverty, and endemic crime/corruption. It's going to be ugly. The goal, if this occurs, is to jump start economic activity at the local level. Get things going again. There is a silver lining though. The tech, technique, and knowledge necessary to build resilient, productive, efficient, and bountiful local economies is already here. It gets even better when these local economies are networked.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Wed 14 Sep 11 16:11
What would be some early signs of supply lines breaking?
John Robb (johnmrobb) Wed 14 Sep 11 19:38
Political instability (Libya recently). Open source warfare using systems disruption (MEND, Naxalites, etc.). Criminal cartels taking over existing supply sources. Collapsing currency (loss of local purchasing power). Rationing and price stability. The list is nearly endless.
Christian De Leon-Horton (echodog) Wed 14 Sep 11 22:27
And, to a great extent, already here. John, I've been meaning to ask this for awhile. With the focus on the survival of the local community, what happens to the identity of the nation state--not only in the sense of the survival of the state, but in the minds of the people who belonged to it? You're a former military officer, as I am, and I'd suspect that given your role when you were in you must have some pretty strong thoughts about patriotism and the United States. I know my own identity remains strongly connected to the notion of the United States, even if it ceased to exist in actuality. If we are all forced to become inwardly focused on our local communities, does national identity simply die?
John Robb (johnmrobb) Thu 15 Sep 11 05:06
Functionally, the nation-state is already in decline and will likely become largely hollow (or criminal, as in: the biggest gang on the block). If I pushed the envelope of my thinking on this, it's possible that nation-states could remain relatively vibrant if they get small (think corporate city-states) or if they get loose (think voluntary network or platform).
Tuppy Glossop (mcdee) Thu 15 Sep 11 07:18
I sometimes look at the current state of the U.S. and ponder whether it's a country trying to come apart. The combination of fecklessness and radicalism is somewhat similar to the period before the Civil War.
John Robb (johnmrobb) Thu 15 Sep 11 07:53
More on these models: In short, in a globalized environment, the old territorially focused nation-state gets into trouble. It loses control over borders, communications, finances, economy, taxes, etc. It also carries too much legacy baggage: people within the borders it is obligated to care for, but don't contribute anything back. They will, inevitably, hollow out and either operate in a state of perpetual failure or adopt new models such as the city state or the loose network. Singapore is the model of a relatively well run corporate-city state. Small population (<10 m). Tight control over everything, including the city's brand. Strict rules of conduct and 24/7 monitoring of everything. Finances are run as if it were a corporation and all corporate entities (of any size) are treated as subsidiaries. Badly run versions of these will be terrible, particularly with what technology enables today. Loose governments operate as virtual networks (online government without a strict claim over territory). Haven't seen this yet in complete form. Looks very much like e-gov services but run as a corporate service.
John Robb (johnmrobb) Thu 15 Sep 11 07:58
Tuppy, It is devolving politically. It's a natural process given that it is ill suited to the environment. It could last intact for longer if it were well run, but the factionalism is a symptom of its malfunction. One thing you are seeing is that power gravitates towards global finance, nearly all of the parties will begin to align with it rather than with the people.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 15 Sep 11 08:31
I can't argue with that. And sorry, I had forgotten about "Tuppy," a character from P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels...
J. Eric Townsend (jet) Thu 15 Sep 11 09:20
Want to make a comment about the mention of hackerspaces earlier and local 3d printing. My experience with hackerspaces is that they are in no way set up for real production. They're "tinkering clubs", usually focused on fun projects and experimentation. The one I belong to relies heavily on goods produced overseas, from our laptops to our ham radios to the chips, stepper motors, plastic, and plywood in our experimental 3d-printers and lasercutters. I think an apt comparison of hacker spaces to fabrication facilities would be gardening clubs to farms. The former are a great place for people to hang out and learn and share notes, the latter are organized systems focused on production. 3D printers are great but we're still in the Altair 8800 days as far as consumer-level printers go. They are fun things to build and tinker with but not ready for practical parts making. We (in the open source hardware movement) have a lot of work ahead of us to get them as easy and safe to use as a regular household appliance.
Travis Bickle has left the building. (divinea) Thu 15 Sep 11 09:46
It occurs to me, reading what jet just posted, that my father was right: when the real depression hits, people will have some respect for tool and die men and machinists again.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 15 Sep 11 09:48
How do utilities figure into these scenarios? Certainly both electricity and water have worked best as government endeavors or government-regulated monopolies in most of the world. The distribution systems are earth-bound and maintenance-intense, because the idea that everybody needs access to power and water has been accepted in the developed world. How can this be sustained, and what do the inequities do to us if it is not?
J. Eric Townsend (jet) Thu 15 Sep 11 12:19
<divinea>, I'm surprised at how popular I became when I learned to weld and built a lasercutter.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Thu 15 Sep 11 13:04
Maybe I'm overly sheltered, but I'm having trouble imagining there being suburban or rural areas of the U.S. where people would feel unsafe driving, to the extent that truckers start asking for hazard pay or won't go there at all. There are urban places where cabs won't go, but that's a different situation, and in some places the trend is in the other direction toward gentrification (e.g. New York City). So the idea of supply lines being cut in the U.S. for longer than you'd expect from an earthquake or flooding is sounding a bit too Mad Max for me. I do realize that there are many places in the world that do have these problems; all you have to do is look across the border to Mexico.
John Robb (johnmrobb) Thu 15 Sep 11 13:29
Eric, definitely concur re: 3D printing. We are the hobbyist phase, as in Home Brew Computer Club, with the equipment. It's going to get better faster than the PC rolled out though. A benefit of the network effect. Same idea with the hackerspaces. They are indeed tinkering clubs! Tinkering is serious business. It's where the action is. It's where the PC was turned into reality and the airplane. Add networks to the mix to allow information sharing and informal peer review and you get a system that perfectly suited to the highly uncertain modern environment. The reason is that if you can't plan outcomes due to randomness, the optimal approach to success is through parallel development efforts using a wide variety of methods in combination with a network that readily embraces unexpected but very useful innovations. In contrast, highly planned efforts tend to limit the number of methods/paths used and are resistant to errant results due to bureaucratic inertia/bias. You can see this with what is going on in warfare. Tinkering networks did extremely well in Iraq. For example, tinkering with IED designs trounced the US $3 b a year program to counter them. Every counter was defeated in weeks and the info needed to do it spread across the network like wildfire. I wrote a bit about this: http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2008/04/rockets-and-ied.h tml
John Robb (johnmrobb) Thu 15 Sep 11 13:36
Brian, that's hard to imagine now, but that is only a financial crises and a couple of short years of depression away. We already have folks tearing down power lines and cracking open commercial refrigeration units for a couple of hundred dollars in copper. A couple of years of deprivation and a loss of government legitimacy due to inaction/insolvency and all of the models of behavior you see currently in Mexico or Argentina will turn up here.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 15 Sep 11 16:48
The next Inkwell conversation has started, but we don't have to end this one, which still seems to have a head of steam. We can stay as long as John can continue making time. Speaking for the WELL, we really appreciate the commitment of time and energy!
those Andropovian bongs (rik) Thu 15 Sep 11 16:49
No kidding. This is a great conversation.
Jack King (gjk) Thu 15 Sep 11 18:27
I hope this post isnt too long, but I have seen the Mad Max scenario in a country I really like: Liberia. What happens when a Western country collapses is: cannibalism. Liberians had rice riots in 1979, and they devolved into 22 years of civil war. What that wreaked was total destruction of the infrastructure and an 80% illiteracy rate today. Its in West Africa, and they never did have a great highway system, but most people had a car or a jeep. The roads were mostly macadam and subject to flooding during the rainy seasons, and most country folk had wells and outhouses, like Georgia and Mississippi up into the late 1960s, but there was electricity, and the railroad, like the American South in the 1960s. In fact, one could say that life in Liberia was as good or better for English-speaking blacks than it was in the USA. The standard of living was way higher than it was in our South. Liberia had a vibrant and Western culture and economy, rivaling South Africas, except that their economy was based entirely on US aid instead of natural resources. They had cars and traffic lights and traffic jams and electricity and television and FM and AM radio and supermarkets and everything, but the country depended on the railroads. Their constitution was written at Harvard in 1839-40, and our Bill of Rights was incorporated right into it instead of being tacked on the back. Their government was modeled after the USAs. It was the biggest CIA station on the continent. But the aid began drying up. Civil war broke out. During the civil wars, the schools closed. Food became scarce as roving bands roamed the country. The railroads were torn up. The locomotives and boxcars were sold overseas for scrap in order to buy rice and bullets. The rails and bridges were torn up to buy rice and bullets. Then the abandoned power stations and the transmission lines came down, and the metals sold for scrap, to buy rice and bullets, and the useless telephone and telegraph lines were torn down and sold for scrap to buy rice and bullets. No farm in the country was safe, the fields were unplanted, and the goats and the cattle were executed by roving militias (there were about 25 of those). The militia kids were convinced that eating the hearts, livers and limbs of their enemies would make them stronger and smarter and literate. Regional cooperation, such as it was, depended on who had rice and bullets. Is this our future too, John Robb. America in West Africa degenerated into starvation and cannibalism and illiteracy in less than a generation, and one of the chief reasons the country is starting to recover is ex-patriots returning from abroad to help out. Where will Americas ex-pats come from?
Jack King (gjk) Thu 15 Sep 11 18:32
(The wars ended in 2004, but the infrastructure still hasn't recovered. You will see piles of garbage in the streets of Monrovia six feet high, but -- no rats! You might think the cats keep the rats under control, but -- not cats! No dogs! They were all eaten a decade or two ago, and even the rat population hasn't recovered. Better than eating your neighbor, I suppose, but when the rats and the rice run out, a person gets real hungry.)
Christian De Leon-Horton (echodog) Thu 15 Sep 11 21:40
The most worrisome part of that lesson, Jack, is that Liberia did not end up belonging to the well-run town/states or hacker communities, but to the people with the guns and the most will to commit mayhem.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Fri 16 Sep 11 04:08
Just great John, thanks for all the work you do.
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