Archive for the 'economy' Category

What if we give it away?

By David Parkinson

A tiny jungle of kale plants hunkers down for winter

That which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin.
(John Ruskin, 1860, “The Veins of Wealth”)

Yesterday, to celebrate Black Friday, Democracy Now rebroadcast a couple of recent interviews: one with economist Manfred Max-Neef and the other with environmental activist Derrick Jensen. They’re both worth listening to, but I was really caught by the interview with ‘barefoot economist’ Max-Neef, who proposes an economics in radical opposition to neoclassical economics and its trendy offshoot neoliberalism, which can be summed up as the belief that the market is the supreme force underlying and determining all aspects of human life.

Max-Neef proposes a new set of principles on which to base a sane economics. From the transcript:

The principles, you know, of an economics which should be are based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

  • One, the economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.
  • Two, development is about people and not about objects.
  • Three, growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.
  • Four, no economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.
  • Five, the economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.

And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.

These principles lead to an economic (and social) system which is extremely different from the one we are stuck in now. I believe that events beyond the control of the economists and politicians are going to compel us to shift to a more human-scale economics within the next decade or so; and this process of humanization and relocalization will continue for the foreseeable future — played out against the ongoing consequences of the overshoot and damage caused by clinging for too long to an anti-human and anti-biospheric way of living. Everything in our media and societal belief system sets us against these coming changes, but I’m not alone in hoping that their net effect will be positive. The way we do things now is extremely out of balance in every way, and the pendulum needs to swing back. Other values need to start trumping the relentless voracious consumption of the planet and its conversion to junk.

The lucky thing is that the seeds of the new economic arrangements are everywhere around us, many lying dormant but many others beginning to sprout and take root. And the place to look for these seeds is in the gift economies that perform an absolutely staggering amount of the good work that goes on around here, and in every community.

The essence of a gift economy is that “valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists).” And where do we see that most often? It’s the not-for-profit and volunteer sector, where people regularly contribute enormous amounts of work for no tangible benefits — at least not of the sort that economists know how to measure, at least not without converting them into ‘in-kind donations’ measured in conventional units of currency. Volunteers and givers work to be part of a healthy community with arts, culture, recreation, and strong social ties among  people and groups. This is not something we can or should expect the cash economy to produce; if anything, the relentless need to work and consume undercuts the hard work of the gift economy.

To take an example which is front and centre in my life lately: I am bowled over by the amount of cooperative work and passionate energy that people are putting into the resuscitation of our local community radio station, CJMP FM. I’ve been involved in plenty of volunteer projects in and around Powell River, but I have never seen anything like the work that people are devoting to this one: they’re showing up to meetings, doing research, and contributing their time and their skills. Local DJs and promoters are offering to donate proceeds from music shows to help get the station off the ground. And the energy is growing. It’s very inspiring to see.

The most interesting thing about this particular project is that operating a community radio station is unlike many other not-for-profit initiatives in that it requires relatively small amounts of capital for startup and ongoing cash for operating expenses. Once you have the gear you need to get the signal from microphone to transmitter to tower, then you only need to rent a space, keep your gear dry, and you’re pretty much ready to get going.

What you do need, and in large amounts, is the time and energy of dedicated and cherished volunteers. And in order to attract and keep volunteers, you need to create an environment which rewards people for contributing their time, expertise, and energy. It has to be the case that those who contribute more, instead of feeling taken advantage of, get even more out of the experience than those who contribute less. Participation has to become its own incentive.

The radio station is only one of many such examples, but it happens to be one that is much on my mind lately. And I’m certain that as the current economic system continues to shift and shudder we’ll start to see more of these seedlings of mutual support and community-building take on more importance in people’s lives. We have surrounded ourselves with an economy which produces unimaginable amounts of what we call ‘wealth’ but which at the same time has impoverished the world by trashing the non-human world and lessening our dependence on each other. We need to start figuring out how to give away our wealth and our labour with the expectation that it will come around again, although not necessarily from the same person or place we gave it to.

For the last half-century or so, we’ve created a system in which extreme dependence on large-scale systems has rewarded us with the most widely-distributed wealth ever seen in the history of the world. Everyone in our society, except for the very poorest, still lives in greater comfort and security than the richest people in previous ages. But the dark downside of this total dependence in huge centralized social, political, and industrial systems is that, once they start to fall apart, we find that we have lost the simple ability to connect, cooperate, and build an economy to sustain us. This where we’re heading, and we’re going to have to find the ingenuity to flow around the eroding remnants of the broken system on our way to saner arrangements.

We’ll find our back to relationships among people and groups which are based much more on the free, uncoerced giving of our labour and our belongings in the knowledge that we will not be abandoned by a system imposed from above by people who have no interest in our local struggles and needs. Of course it’ll be scary and weird at times; but along the way we’ll gain the perspective that permits us to see how scary and weird this supposed best of all possible systems has been all along. That’s something to look forward to.

The right to useful unemployment

By David Parkinson

The past? the present? the future?

The title of this week’s post is an homage to Ivan Illich, about whom Ran Prieur writes, “Ivan Illich was so smart, and wrote so clearly, that I can barely stand to read him — it’s like looking at the sun.” That’s an accurate description of the effect of reading Illich: I find myself having to stop after every few paragraphs because the writing is so dense; unlike a lot of intellectually rich material, though, it is written in language as clear and simple as the thoughts allow. It’s the depth of thinking under the surface that makes it a joy to read. And Illich’s amazing prescience: he diagnoses our situation from his vantage point more than thirty years ago and points towards solutions which seem more apt now than they might have done at that time.

The theme which runs through his work is that of the counterproductivity of social and industrial systems: how any system which addresses some aspect of human need eventually acquires its own internal logic and, if not resisted, begins to work against human interests. Illich investigated this trend in education (Deschooling Society), medicine (Medical Nemesis), transportation (Energy and Equity), and in very general terms in Tools for Conviviality and its sequel, The Right to Useful Unemployment (And its Professional Enemies). It’s a superficially simple concept with very profound consequences for the way I see the world.

At the Kale Force meeting this week, Carol Battaglio was present to talk about her evolving plan to create a therapeutic farm on the 31.6-acre lot she bought from PRSC Limited Partnership (known locally as ‘the joint venture’). I am personally thrilled to see this project happening, as I was deeply involved in the 2006–07 campaign to stop the City of Powell River from excluding this and other parcels of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve. The conversation around the table was a freewheeling one, and we made some solid connections among existing projects and concepts that Carol might use to realize her vision. The most tangible outcome is that Carol found someone to help her clear the land, which is overrun with stumps and brambles. (But sometimes those seemingly small steps forward are really crucial ones.)

We had one of those huddles near the door that are the sign of a satisfying conversation: people know they need to get going, but stall on the way out because the ideas are flowing. Someone suggested that this region is at a tipping point because there are now so many little projects brewing, underground, semi-underground, just starting to connect to each other and create an alternative economy, barely visible now but growing fast. Another person suggested that this alternative culture is on the rise because the prevailing culture really only has one big idea, whereas the ‘new guard’ comes equipped with any number of schemes all along the continuum from crackpot to surefire; so many of them that they are sure to overwhelm the monocultural approach just as weeds of all types will overrun a field of all one crop.

I think there is something in this. The prevailing mindset of our local economic leaders is to focus on a few large big-ticket projects, among them the quixotic rescue of the Catalyst paper mill. At the same time, citizens watch the City take on heavy debt to pull off what are essentially gambles that the global economy will continue to grow, sustaining the consumerist lifestyle that will see people retiring wealthy, traveling, and shopping as far as the eye can see. I sense a growing unease at what this is going to do to people’s tax burden, especially when the other expensive projects are added to the tally.

Meanwhile, there is a mass movement, disorganized and provisional but gathering speed, to opt out of this worldview and instead focus on the essentials: food, shelter, transportation, health in the holistic sense, and more. If the economy continues to destroy jobs and wealth as measured in money, people will inevitably shift their allegiance to those things which are the real foundation of wealth. And here our economic leaders are (so far) of very little use to us. If anything, the social systems we have created during the past century or so are actively inimical to people’s efforts to build a vernacular culture: for a good example, look no further than the insane amount of highly-paid make-work it took to overcome the provincial Meat Inspection Regulation, which proposed to deprive people of their ability to buy locally-produced and -slaughtered meat as they have been doing for thousands of years. This is just one example, although a particularly egregious one, of trends which have become almost universal: the creation of classes of phony professionals to intervene in the simple exchange of goods and services between people, making them onerous and needlessly expensive; or the outright criminalization of these exchanges, making them dangerous (and needlessly expensive).

Which brings us back to Illich. His life’s work was to argue for a convivial culture, one in which people’s right to create their own culture, tools, language, and social systems is paramount. I like to think we are perched on the edge, maybe even sliding down the slope towards the time for Illich’s deeply humanistic vision to be realized. And it won’t happen because suddenly we’re all attending seminars in ‘sustainability’, or being told how to grow our own food by self-appointed experts — if it happens (when it happens) it will be because the elaborate and meaningless barriers to imagination and creativity are unsustainable. People will start to act as though they are no longer there, and an exhausted tradition of phony professionalism and bureaucratic pantomime activity will be revealed as laughable.

The depth and breadth of the creativity bubbling under the surface of every town and region is an unstoppable force compared to the decreasing returns of the business-as-usual projects we’re supposed to look to for future economic development. The culture we build here will be made up out of semi-employment, improvised solutions, the invention of work, civil disobedience in the face of outworn and unenforceable regulations, and mutual aid in place of phony professionalized ‘services’. This collection of (maybe) unappealing characteristics won’t come out on top for any reason other than pure necessity: the failure of our experts and leaders to have any ideas worth pursuing. Better to have useful unemployment than all of the useless economic development schemes in the world.

Life in a modern village

By Tom Read

Minor ball players and their coaches gather at the ball field in Van Anda, a de facto village commons (firehall in the background). Photo taken a few years ago.

On Texada Island we often speak of Gillies Bay and Van Anda as “villages.” A few evenings ago I happened across a book at the Texada Library entitled Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances and Joseph Gies. Their book describes the evolution of villages from antiquity, and provides great detail about the English Midlands village of Elton as it was approximately 700 years ago. Elton still exists as a modern village, but it is completely different in function from medieval times. To quote the Gieses:

In the modern world the village is merely a very small town, often a metropolitan suburb, always very much a part of the world outside. The ‘old fashioned village’ of the American nineteenth century was more distinctive in function, supplying services of merchants and craftsmen to a circle of farm homesteads surrounding it.

The medieval village was something different from either. Only incidentally was it the dwelling place of merchants or craftsmen. Rather, its population consisted of the farmers themselves, the people who tilled the soil and herded the animals. Their houses, barns and sheds clustered at its center, while their plowed fields and grazing pastures and meadows surrounded it. Socially, economically and politically, it was a community.”

The modern village of Elton still has a few farmers and sheep, but its residents make a living by commuting to jobs in cities, including London, which is about 70 miles distant. Here on Texada, our villages include merchants, craftspeople and artists, but hardly any farmers. Some of our neighbours and almost all of our teenagers commute to jobs and school, respectively, in Powell River. Like Elton, we see gardens and orchards in many yards. A few cows graze on pasture in the centre of Gillies Bay, and chickens, including roosters, seem well represented, too.

Alas for anyone contemplating an increase in local agriculture, our villages appear to be surrounded by temperate rainforest and ocean, not fertile fields. Appearances can be deceiving, however. We may not look like the Midlands, but it turns out that Texada actually has plenty of agricultural land — the island once supported so many farms that we had our own Farmer’s Institute. So where have all the farmers gone?

One of the main reasons our island and its villages lack farmers today is that local farms could not compete economically with government-subsidized agribusiness. Thus, socially, economically and politically, it would appear that our Texada villages have evolved as mere outposts of global industrial life. That’s because we depend on the same life-support systems as mainlanders for our energy, food, transport, governance, communication, etc. Yet our small population (about 500 people per village; 1,100 for the island as a whole) gives us much closer-knit communities than would be possible in the suburbs or cities. We know each other by sight and reputation if not always by name or first-hand experience.

Medieval villages were especially noted for their permanence, according to the Gieses’ research in the book cited above. English agricultural villages often lasted hundreds of years. Through cooperative efforts they were resilient enough to survive war, pestilence and famine. The modern villages of Texada Island are relatively young (about 120 years for Van Anda and 60 or so years for Gillies Bay), and depend almost entirely for their existence on a global industrial system. Maybe someday we’ll see a book about Life in a Modern Village that describes a deliberate return to sustainable village agriculture accompanied by a diverse local economy, albeit without feudal overlords.

Rural illusion, real prosperity

By Tom Read

This is Gillies Bay on a summer's day a few years ago, looking towards Courtenay-Comox. At night you would see the glow of city lights across the water.

In last week’s post I mentioned that I was getting ready for a trip to Vancouver to fix a troublesome tooth. Because I live on Texada Island full time and seldom travel, I started thinking about the relationship of rural Texada to its surrounding metropolitan region. (By the way, I’m happy to report that the root canal — my first, and maybe last — went quite smoothly, and that Linda and I quite enjoyed our brief immersion in the urban hive.)

Anyway, the leisurely pace of ferry travel while homeward bound gave me time to contemplate the many existing relationships that link Texada to the coastal cities of BC and beyond. To name just a few that came to my mind:

— Biologists from the University of British Columbia and various other universities have been coming to Texada for decades to study our isolated and therefore uniquely evolved stickleback (fish) populations in local lakes;

— Many young men and women who grew up on Texada began looking beyond the island for wider opportunities while commuting to high school in Powell River, and then left the local area altogether after graduation. I’ve met more than a few of these young adults who still think of Texada as “home” even while they live and work in cities around the country;

— Millions of tons of limestone have been mined and shipped from Texada to various urban locations in North America, and hundreds of limestone-based products (including cement, steel, paint, food, medicines and plastics) are manufactured far away, then shipped all over the world. A small percentage of those products find their way back to Texada for use by local residents.

We are connected to cities so intimately that it’s a challenge to find specific instances of our rural island being entirely on its own. Yet because it feels so remote most of the time, I think that many Texadans, myself included, can get lost in an illusion of local independence. The illusion is fed by Texada’s abundant natural beauty; it seems like we are living in a coastal rainforest wilderness thousands of miles from cities like Vancouver.  In fact it’s literally on the horizon, and on a clear night you can see the glow of city lights to the south, the west (Courtenay-Comox) and the northeast (Powell River).

For the entrepreneurial-minded, there are economic opportunities inherent in our close proximity to cities.  City people need our natural beauty, safety and solitude, which is why various forms of tourism have played an important role in our economic life here for many decades. City people obviously need our industrial raw materials, particularly minerals and timber. If we could add value to those gifts of nature ourselves, then city people would find good use for made-on-Texada manufactured goods. And my special favourite is food, which is something everyone needs, and that we could produce a lot more of on Texada should we so desire.

Even in the midst of global economic changes, Texada is well-positioned to serve the needs of surrounding cities. We are certainly close enough, and water transport is the most energy-efficient on the planet. Once upon a time some Texadans even routinely rowed small boats across the Strait to visit Powell River. Many valuable relationships are built on such physical proximity. I believe that if we look beyond our rural illusion, a systematic review of existing and potential off-island relationships could point the way toward a new, very real — and possibly more sustainable — prosperity here.

What are you fighting for?

By David Parkinson

Waves

There are people wearing frowns
Who’ll screw you up
But they would rather screw you down.

(Arthur Lee, “You Set the Scene”, 1967)

A couple of recent events have got me thinking about how we’re supposed to start working together as a community in order to produce positive changes in the way we consume, travel, eat, and generally live our lives here in (possibly) the final hurrah of the growth phase of industrial civilization.

The first was the City of Powell River‘s public consultation meeting last Monday evening (October 19, 2009) at Dwight Hall in Powell River. This was an Open Space event where those present got to determine the agenda in the context of a shaping question, which in this case was something to the effect of “Given Powell River’s future economic uncertainty, we need to pay attention to…”. Attendees were invited to fill in the ellipsis at the end of that sentence, until we had gathered up three sets of twenty-five potential things we needed to pay attention to as we move into an uncertain future. Some of the subjects for discussion were very much on the economic side of things (e.g., taxes, rates of pay for City employees, the cost of transportation and shipping), while others were much more concerned with the general livability of the region (e.g., accessibility for people with physical disabilities, green space).

Once we had created the ‘agenda’ of topics for discussion, we had three sessions of about 20 minutes during which we were free to find the group discussing the topic we found most interesting and contribute to that conversation. At each of these groups someone was documenting the main threads of the conversation as a record of the event.

The subjects which struck me as most interesting were those which were oriented towards the creation of a resilient region: food security, local currency schemes, micro-credit and the spawning of many small businesses, better transportation options, and so on. Of course, as always happens at an Open Space event, there were more things to talk about than time in which to talk about them, so the attendees had to focus on the three conversations of greatest interest or urgency to them.

The first of the three conversations I took part in was on the topic of “focusing on where we are now rather than where we have been as a region”, and this drew a group of about ten people. It was clear that the person who had originally proposed that topic intended it to spark some creative thinking about how this region can move forward and prosper economically, even if we lose the large employer which has traditionally defined this community (i.e., the paper mill).

I was the designated note-taker for this group, and I quickly became overwhelmed as the conversation spiraled off into a heated debate over the best way to create wealth in the community: by bringing in a small number of large employers from outside the region, or by encouraging a large number of smaller employers to spring up from within the region. Then we went off into a tangent focusing on the merits (or not) of Plutonic Power‘s run-of-river project in Toba Inlet, and things got a little tense for a few minutes.

The thought that came to me, as I sat trying to distill the conversation into notes, was that in this culture we have very few good methods for identifying the challenges we face, for talking about these challenges honestly but respectfully, and for working together on good solutions even in the face of disagreement. Obviously, a group of ten random strangers are not going to solve the problems of the world — or even those of their own region — in a few short minutes; but what is always slightly sad to observe is how quickly we harden our positions and defend them against all contrary opinion or facts. We thrive on controversy and conflict, to the extent that many of us would rather rail against the wrongs we see than imagine a better future and work backwards to figure out the positive steps we can take now that might get us there. Opportunities for genuine dialogue tend to hit dead ends quickly and dissolve in mutual distrust.

There is nothing wrong with conflict arising from differences of opinion. What is unfortunate, and what is really damaging our prospects of designing a decent future, is that our main means for settling conflicts is by applying the principle “money talks”. Increasingly, the mechanisms we use to determine our direction as a society is by selling the decision to the highest bidder. Anyone with an alternative vision is free to stand on the sidelines and kvetch, but that’s about as far as dissent goes.

I believe that less kvetching and more positive action is what we need now. We could all spend the rest of our short precious lives identifying all of the things in this world which we abhor and working to overturn them — and any successes we had would be wiped out by any number of new atrocities to seize our attention. But what kind of life is it to be always pitted against, never fighting for? We are going to have to become better at imagining creative alternatives to all of the lousy idiot ideas destroying our world, ignoring as best we can the junk and the rottenness, and pushing forwards into our own dreams. We need to learn to work with those who hold different visions, when this is possible without sacrificing our vision and our dignity — this might not come around too often, but we need to continue looking for those opportunities.

Which brings me to the second event, which resonated with these reflections about conflict and conversation. From this week’s mailbag, someone writes in to say this about my colleague Tom Read, who helps manage this blog and contributes a weekly column:

He [i.e., Tom] is using your site as a soapbox to promote his vision which is highly inappropriate for Texada–his dominance on the site has discouraged other contributions, surely, you must know that on the logging stats, so SlowCoast has become non-relevant.   He supported the Westpac LNG plant and now the Texada South Quarry. So not the best eco stats.

Tom has publicly expressed his belief that the proposed quarry development at Davie Bay is a potentially critical piece of Texada’s economic future. For the record, he did not support the proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal. If anyone wants to know more about Tom’s position, they can contact him easily enough. His opinion is nuanced and expresses his genuine concern for the fate of the place he calls home. And of course you can feel free to disagree with him. Sadly, though, it’s always seems to be more fun to make these intra-regional and inter-personal conflicts as black-and-white as possible; to start drawing up the list of enemies; and to backbite and shun the ideologically suspect. Perhaps our correspondent hopes that I will ditch Tom from Slow Coast so that my ‘logging stats’ (whatever the hell that might mean) will improve and Slow Coast once again becomes relevant. That won’t be happening. This project is an equal partnership and does not require a loyalty oath. I can’t ditch Tom anymore than he can ditch me — thankfully.

What I find especially irritating about this is that Tom has written directly about the Lehigh quarry proposal precisely one time, back on July 10, 2009. The rest of the time he writes about all kinds of things having to do with living on Texada: small-scale farming and animal husbandry, canning and food preservation, living in a remote location, and all sorts of other posts which I would file under the general heading of ‘sustainability’ or ‘regional resilience’. When he’s not writing for Slow Coast, he’s out there working on a number of worthwhile community projects. We need more of this; not mere ideological purity and monocultural thinking.

If anyone out there has something to say, please send your comments or your contributions. Better that than try to tear down the things you disagree with. This site is no one’s soapbox, but is intended to reflect the variety of opinions in the region. If we can no longer express our truths without someone trying to shut us down or shout us down, the conversation is over.

History

By Tom Read

Clarence Wood (left) and Dan Read discuss Texada history at an undisclosed old mine site on Texada Island.

Clarence Wood (left) and Dan Read discuss Texada history at an undisclosed old mine site on Texada Island.

Texada Island is generally known to possess a rich history, and yesterday I thoroughly enjoyed a brief, guided sojourn into our island’s past. Thanks to the generosity of local historian Clarence Wood, my father (visiting from St. Augustine, Florida) and I toured four old mine sites with Clarence, who provided a running commentary on each. Clarence also thoughtfully provided copies of old photos showing the very same mine sites as they appeared about a century ago.

We found remains of long-abandoned mining equipment and collected a few bits of colourful pyrite and iron-rich rock extracted long ago from various mines, and we used our imaginations to peer inside darkened old mine shafts that reach hundreds of feet underground. In the cool, bright sunshine of a late September morning, I felt the presence of all those working men who once built and operated these mines.

Human history on Texada goes back a lot further than its many old mines, of course. And mining wasn’t the only industry here a hundred years ago; forestry and agriculture also played important roles in the building of modern Texada. When I think about the history of this place, it helps me understand how much our island community today reflects the decisions and efforts of those who came before us. We have inherited a valuable infrastructure of buildings and transportation facilities from our history as a mining and forestry district, but we also still carry with us a less-obvious and not-so-beneficial status as a resource colony.

It’s true that a few local families, particularly the Beale family, built and operated mines on Texada. However, just as the provinces of ancient Rome were systematically exploited solely for the benefit of Roman aristocrats, Texada, and British Columbia itself, have a history of economic colonization by foreigners. For example, the mines we visited yesterday were originally built by Americans primarily to serve the American market. The metal ores and quick lime were shipped to the USA for further processing into what we now call “value-added products.”

Among the photos Clarence showed us yesterday was a posed shot of two well-dressed gentlemen standing in front of a recently-exposed rock face. These were the mine owners, come for a visit to their holdings on Texada Island. Locals provided the labour, and ultimately created a proud and strong community here, but they did it on an economic foundation provided by off-island capital investment and business management expertise, such as represented by the men in that photo.

Are there any lessons from our history that we might contemplate for our own future? Of the three quarries now operating on Texada, only one is effectively a local business. Very little value-added manufacturing occurs on Texada today, even compared to the early days of mining here. We might be grateful that the cement plants are located elsewhere, but what about other opportunities for making something useful from local resources? Do we have access to capital and business expertise locally, so that we might create a truly local economy?

History is not just about the past; it gives us our present and helps us think about our future.

The trouble with growth is that it keeps growing

By David Parkinson

Fall-bearing golden raspberries; a gift from Robin Wheeler, now a gift from the garden

Fall-bearing golden raspberries; a gift from Robin Wheeler, now a gift from the garden

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.
(E.F. Schumacher)

As the 50-mile eat-local challenge winds down and we come closer to the annual Fall Fair, the end of summer looms on the horizon. Soon we will be in the thick of the wintertime: short wet days and long evenings and nights. Many people complain about the winters here on the coast, but I find it to be a good time of the year. The gardening and food preservation are done, everything is mulched, cover-cropped, or protected by a row cover from the relentless rains and cold winds. All the visiting and traveling slows down. It’s the time of year for retreating to the home, to the fireside, for the season of contemplation. Sometimes the summers here seem almost too frenzied, although once they start to fade into cooler and shorter days, you start to realize how many projects you somehow failed to get to. Oh well, you think, there’s always next year.

This summer felt like another watershed year for the local food movement. There was so much interest in the Edible Garden Tour that I’m already thinking about how to make it just that much bigger and better next year — without turning it into an unmanageable behemoth, just using it as a better way to bring people together around a shared interest in small-scale food growing. And my impression is that the Fruit Tree Project has grown considerably again this year: more fruit preserved; more people fed; less food wasted; and fewer bears led into temptation. The seed-saving pilot project sponsored by the Farmers’ Institute is coming to an end for this year, and it looks as though we’ll have plenty of carefully-raised local seed to share with the community at next year’s Seedy Saturday. The Garden to Table workshop series being sponsored through the Community Resource Centre in Powell River has been attracting good numbers of participants.

Recently, I was talking with someone about the upsurge in small-scale food production which is taking place not just here but all over North America. We were wondering to what extent this is motivated by awareness of peak oil or the frailty of the global food system; or by the economic downturn; or by less tangible motivations, such as a growing need to take control over parts of our lives which have been outsourced to corporations and gigantic impersonal systems. I’m not even sure that many of us could articulate our reasons for wanting to become more self-reliant. There’s a sense in which it’s just out there in the air we breathe these days: a feeling that the huge institutions which have taken care of our needs and wants are starting to fall into disrepair, joined with a fear that we have no clear Plan B for any of these, should they happen to fail. And the prospect of failure of the food supply is something that gets people moving pretty early.

I have noticed that there is a pretty rigid code of silence around the discussion of topics such as this. Even when you’re surrounded by like-minded people, it can be awkward to acknowledge that you are growing or storing food because you do not have complete faith in the future of the food supply. The urge to say nothing stems in large part from the power of the great myths which underlie the workings of the world we live in. One of the central ones for us is the myth of eternal growth. Somehow, against all rationality and in the face of everything we know about the natural world, we have come to believe that we can continue to keep growth going forever. Even when we accept we are pushed to the limit and we acknowledge that eternal growth is a fiction, we simply cannot see beyond the point where growth stops and becomes contraction. Nor can we imagine a society constructed around the idea of sufficiency or limit or moderation. A belief that there are limits to growth, and acting on that belief, are uncomfortable heresies best kept private.

In the domain of our food supply, this ethos of growth has led to a large and intricate system of production, processing, and transportation capable of managing the production of unimaginably huge quantities of staple foods around the world, getting them into a transportable and consumable form, and getting them to consumers. It’s a miracle of efficiency and productivity, so long as you don’t notice the waste and destruction hidden underneath the surface. There are real human and environmental costs associated with this system, costs which we mostly ignore — or, if forced to recognize them, we chalk them up to the usual minor inefficiencies that any large system will produce. And anyway, it’s not like we can see any real alternatives. Things grow. If something is good to begin with, then when it grows it’s better… right?

The goodness of Growth has become an almost unquestionable assumption at the base of our economy. Our economy is built on top of resource extraction and the production of goods carried out in the most rapacious and destructive manner, because to take anything less than everything is a sin against Growth. We cannot see how to get away from total resource extraction; if one company holds back in the interests of the environment, another will gladly step in and finish the job. The system of laws, norms, and social rules which define this culture have no way to express “less than everything”. And it’s not at all clear how, from within a culture of totalizing extraction and consumption, we can evolve a culture of sufficiency — one which can recognize limits and respect them in the interests of all people and other species. Some of us know we need to get there, but we can’t figure out how to get there from here.

I know that this doesn’t sound cheery. And this is another reason why we all find it hard to talk about these difficult truths. Who wants to be the ghost at the banquet? Not I. Not you. So we trundle onward, doing our best to question the foundational myths of a culture which shows every sign of heading off the rails, while trying not to question the small palliative measures which are acceptable enough to be rolled out in public (e.g., the “green economy”, “sustainable growth”, and so on), and feeling more and more alienated from a world built on top of what are intolerable and unsustainable practices.

It occurred to me recently, as I passed by one of our lovely local clearcuts, that one way we can more easily see the destruction caused by the normal workings of the growth economy is to ask the question: “If someone were doing this for free, what would we think of it?” Imagine that a community group sprang up whose purpose was to go out every weekend and cut down huge swathes of the forest in our back country. Would you join a social club which went out and dammed rivers just for the hell of it? How about raising funds so that we can contaminate the water supplies of First Nations communities with toxic chemicals? Maybe a telethon to send chemical fertilizers into the ocean where they will create an algae bloom visible from space? These are all repugnant ideas, aren’t they? Now if you imagine that these activities are carried out for the direct profit of a relatively small and élite group, then we are expected to accept them, to reward them, and to honour the men and women who do them. Our elected governments will use their full force to protect the right to engage in these activities. For now they are creating “economic development” and are beyond questioning. In fact, they are the fundamental activities — the rituals, if you like — around which we construct our world. We may acknowledge their ill effects, but when we put those in the scale and balance them against the unquestioned — unquestionable — benefits they bring to our economy, we have nothing to say.

Destruction redeemed by so-called economic benefits is a bad enough bargain when times are good and the limits to extraction are not in sight. But we now live in a time when those limits are slowly becoming visible. Despite some lingering controversy over the mathematical models, it is clear that we face the end of cheap petrochemicals by mid-century. The list of other endangered natural resources grows daily. It would have been good if we could have recognized natural limits to growth before hitting the crisis point, but there you have it. As a species, we have failed to exchange long-term crisis for short-term discomfort. We haven’t even been able to understand the terms of the exchange, and a lot of that is because we are in under the spell of Growth. Without growth, nothing makes any sense to us, so we choose not to think about the world beyond it.

So long as we remain stuck on the idea that there is no alternative to eternal growth; so long as we excuse the failings of corporatized large-scale production as minor glitches in an otherwise functional system; so long as we refuse to even imagine a steady-state economy which produces meaningful work and a reasonably fair distribution of good things; above all, so long as we allow ourselves to be silenced by the church of eternal growth — then there is not going to be a way out of the difficulties we find ourselves in. I’m going to take this up in future posts, since there are people out there beginning to talk about what a ‘de-growthed’ economy might look like, and how we can get there from here.


Post facto

May 2017
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