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Little Biosphere on the Suburban Prarie

In my most recent LiveJournal post, I wrote that I would like to see people move away from frivolous over-consumption, and start learning and using practical skills for interacting with and creating a “living” from the physical world. Specifically, I wrote:

Do I long for economic catastrophe? Well, sort of. If people started living in a healthy, sustainable, fashion; growing their own food, wearing the same clothes year after year, repairing damaged items rather than replacing them according to the latest fashion, developing useful skills and learning to barter, economists would call that a catastrophe. What I call frivolous over-consumption, economists call consumer confidence. I would like to see consumer confidence plummet. (After a day's consideration, I'd like to modify that statement. I'd like to see consumer confidence take a protracted and gradual decline. I really don't want to see the US population endure hardships on the scale of the Great Depression.)

Of all the comments I received on that post, nobody accused me of indulging in “good old days” sentimentality, but it still occurs to me that folks might have taken me to be saying something to the effect that we should turn back the clock and escape into a fabled paradise of 18th century homesteader living. Worse than someone forming that impression and accusing me of mushy-headed “golden age” thinking, I worried that folks might mis-read what I wrote and “agree” with me in thinking that we can turn our backs on the events of the last two centuries and live on the fringes of an industrialized world in a pre-industrial mode.

In my post, I quoted from a speech that sci-fi author David Brin gave to a national Libertarian Party conference. Anyone who even started to read his speech, entitled Essences, Orcs and Civilization: The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism will have read the following:

Obsession with either past or future can almost define a civilization. Worldwide, most cultures believed in some lost golden age when people knew more, mused loftier thoughts and were closer to the gods -- but then fell from grace. The myth of loss and regret occurred so frequently, in so many nations and contexts, that we must assume it wells up from something basic in our natures.

Under this dour but recurrent "look-back" worldview, men and women of a later, coarser era can only look back with envy to that better, happier time. Our best recourse is to study ancient lore, hoping to live up to remnants of ancient wisdom.

Just a few societies dared contradict this standard dogma of nostalgia. Our own Scientific West, with its impudent notion of progress, brashly relocated any 'golden age' to the future, something to work toward: a human construct that our grandchildren may achieve with craft, sweat and good will -- assuming we manage to prepare them. Implicit is a postulate that our offspring can and should be better than us, a glimmering hope that is nurtured (a bit) by two generations of steadily rising IQ scores.

Link: http://www.davidbrin.com/libertarianarticle1.html

To use Brin’s model, I did not want to give the impression of advocating a “look-back” worldview. Quite the contrary, but the exact formulation of the distinction I thought needed making eluded me. Yesterday, I was reading from Living Homes: Thomas J. Elpel’s Field Guide to Integrated Design & Construction in which the author describes the history of the “back to the land” mentality and the attempts that people have made in recent decades to act on it. What follows is a longish excerpt from the book that explains just why we can’t all turn back the clock and live homesteader lifestyle of 200 years ago:

Homesteading was largely a self-sufficient way of life. Almost everything a homesteader needed came from the land and was returned to it. Homesteaders grew their own crops and stored the roots, fruits, and vegetables away for the winter months, plus they raised their own meat. Kitchen scraps were recycled to the pigs or composted. Human wastes were recycled to the soil via the outhouse. Water came from a spring or well and was also returned the land after use. Their fuel came from a private woodlot and the carbon and ashes were returned to the air and land to grow new trees. Homesteader's lives were deeply integrated with the cycles of the ecosystem and the renewal resources on their land. In many cases, going to town was a once-a-year affair, to trade their surplus crops for coffee sugar and other special wares to get through the coming cycle. It is easy to romanticize such a simple and balanced way of living.

I think it was this romantic notion of homestead life combined with the environmental concerns of our industrial culture that kicked off the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970's. People looked at the unnatural a unsustainable ways that industry took over our lives, heating and powering our homes and vehicles with petroleum growing our food with petroleum, extracting vast resources from nature and polluting the environment with our wastes. People wanted to return to the pure simplicity of the past. They flocked to the country and tried the self-sufficient, homestead life-style-building their own homes, using wood heat, growing their own meat and vegetables, milking their own cows and doing their own canning. But homesteading, as it turns out, was a lot of work.

The back-to-the-land movement fizzled as the result of simple economics. As discussed in my book Direct Pointing to Real Wealth, it is highly impractical to live on the fringe of an industrial culture while trying to produce a living at a pre-industrial, agrarian level of technology. The simple agrarian life-style produces about 33 calories of energy per calorie expended while the industrial life-style produces about 300 calories per calorie of body energy expended. In essence, homesteading produces roughly one-tenth as much income as the same amount of work in the industrial world. People returned to the industrial work place simply to get decent-paying jobs. Unfortunately, it is difficult to hold a job while also trying to raise a small farm, milk the cows, can the vegetables, and make your own clothes. The 1970's simply proved that it is impossible to turn back the clock.

The industrial race never slowed down for a moment and has continued to build power and momentum ever since. The reason we haven't yet run out of fossil fuels is because new exploration and drilling technology developed since the 1970's have put us into an energy glut that will last for decades to come-despite temporary ups and downs in the market. You might hear a lot about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to relieve the "energy crises" but the political pressure to do so comes mostly from special interests, such as the state of Alaska where the public gets paid a tax refund from oil industry profits every year. Oil industry insiders do not expect such a venture to be profitable while the price of oil is so low and is forecast to remain low for at least the next twenty years. We will wean ourselves off of oil long before we run out of it!

Ironically, our most urgent environmental problems today stem from the over use of "renewable" resources. Traditional homesteading might still be ecologically sustainable for a limited number of people, but it would not be sustainable if everyone tried to live that way. Even in a place as rural as Montana there are too many people still hunting for firewood, and in some communities there is too much air pollution from all the wood stoves.

Organic resources are becoming increasingly scarce worldwide. Rain forests are being cleared for agriculture. Old growth forests are being milled for lumber. Deforestation is destabilizing watersheds, causing flood and drought cycles. Fisheries on shore and in the ocean are being shut down. Habitats are disappearing, and exotic species are lost daily to extinction. The reality is that we truly did out grow the organic ecosystem's ability to provide, so it is no longer sustainable for every person to live directly off the earth. Fortunately we do not have to either.

Stop for a moment and imagine what it might be like to colonize the moon. First you would need an energy source, but obviously not firewood, methane, or any other kind of biofuel, since there is no life on the moon. By necessity you would choose a completely inorganic source of energy, such as photovoltaics (solar power) to power your colony. Then you would need to build shelters, but obviously you are not going to use wood, since there is none, so you would turn to minerals and metals to make completely inorganic structures to live in. You will also need to grow food and recycle a limited supply of air, water, and nutrients, but you cannot do that outside, so you will have to do it under glass. Of course it would be inefficient to try and glass in thousands of acres to farm with horses and plows, so you are logically going to develop factory-style farms to grow the most possible food in the least possible space-essentially hydroponically-fed with water and nutrients recycled from the colony's waste stream. Ultimately you would develop a completely sustainable way of life that is entirely independent of the organic ecosystem, only because there is no organic ecosystem there to depend on.

In short, this is exactly how we will one day achieve true sustainability on this planet too. We will have a booming civilization that no longer depends on the living ecosystem. That is a good thing too, because at the rate we are going, we are expected to wipe out half of all life on land by about the middle of this century. The faster that we can wean ourselves off of the living ecosystem, the more of it we will be able to save.

I am not suggesting that we should up and quit all use of our living products. It is possible to grow and harvest our organic resources sustainably, at a fixed level of use. But to sustain the massive human population and modern life-style we must increasingly substitute resources from outside the living ecosystem, so life can continue the process of renewal. The homesteads of the 21st century will be ever more like the sort of biospheres you might find on the moon, built of mostly inorganic resources, highly energy-efficient, and designed to recycle at least a portion of the air, water, and nutrients internally.

Today a new back-to-the-land movement is under way, marked by an effort to find a modern connection with nature. The emerging informational culture allows people to bring their work to the country, so they can earn a decent wage and live close to nature. These new homesteaders are returning to the land with computers, faxes, email, the internet and teleconferencing-using their incomes to build large modern homes with natural woodwork, scenic vistas, and stone hearths and chimneys for fake fires.

The problem with the new back-to-the-land movement is that it is elitist--at least the part of the movement that is visible through the media. The magazine racks are full of "country" magazines with fancy new sprawling homes of adobe, or stone, or log, or straw. Some of the homes are natural only in design, while others showcase the latest eco-technologies for energy and water conservation, but in either case, they are expensive "eco-mansions" that lend the impression that you have to be rich to live close to the earth.

My own interest in "homesteading" and housing grew partly out of my interest in primitive survival skills. After all, it is the same process, the pursuit of basic necessities like shelter, food, clothing, water and fire. But I was also inspired by the threat of impending adulthood. I realized I would have to deal with the same basic needs in modern society. However, the idea of getting a meaningless job and walking the treadmill just plain scared the heck out of me!


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Sep. 21st, 2003 05:55 pm (UTC)
An 'antiquated nostalgia' versus ANY vision
I think the real problem is that there is no real national 'vision' for this society. There is no looking forward to a grand future and no real looking back to a glorious past. All that exists is a lonely struggle for possesions and a fear of losing them that takes time from truly enjoying those same posessions or even just living.

On my journal a while back, I blasted someone who said that "Science Fiction" was to blame for the Shuttle crash. Something about him mentioning wanting to explore space so that our children could be Tom Corbett Space Cadet and our grandchildren Captian Kirk. (as if that was a BAD goal to reach) There's now a 2% fatality risk for the shuttle, but how many went on ocean voyages with a 25% chance of not coming back because of piracy?

Still, Sci-Fi might have failed this current generation. We've had dystopias dominate the 60's and 70's (Logan's Run, Brave New World) , Post nuclear stuff (Mad Max) in the 80's transitioning to a flood of degenerate Cyberpunk societies in the 90's, and so far outside a fantasy re-surgance I see more nostalgia re-published than new books for the most part. Globular cluster size overgeneralization, but it is a paragraph.

As I was a teenager in the late 80's, I should wholly have been influenced by those. However, not knowing any better, I shopped at used book stores more often than not, ending up with tons of stuff from way earlier. 50's, 40's, old sci-fi adventure mags, re-prints of pulp magazine stuff (Conan!).

Therefore, I see space as something that must be explored, D--- the cost, for the sake of mankind. Utopias are something to strive towards, not foolish notions doomed to failure or Orwellian nightmare. Finally, the hero wins, not because of foolish ideals that the plot of the story supports, or because of being a 'hip' anti-hero, but because he has the will and the drive to accomplish them.

People feel helpless and overwhelmed in today's society. They see the future as something that will likely be bleak, but fear to look towards it and concentrate on the now.

I think there's lots of good stuff in that old sci-fi. For starters, I want my SLIDEWALK. (or, realisticly, reliable public transport) Who needs a Hummer2 and a house 4 hours drive away in the suburbs if you have a vast underground hive city with elevators and slidewalks to get around, not to mention largely untouched forest on top?
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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