At Home with the Numbers Game.. or John Michael Greer is Singing my Song!

As you know, Greer and I at times have our differences in perspective, but I think this week's column is particularly acute, and offers up two point that I think are really essential to grasp when thinking of the future.

The first is that technical feasibility is not all - that technical feasibility rests on a complex bed of other feasibilities. Thus, simply observing that it is technically possible, to, say, create zero impact cities or whatever does not usefully tell us whether we are going to do it. For example, it has been technically possible to eliminate most causes of death in childhood for the world's poor for thirty to forty years, and periodically the UN and other agencies explain how this might technically come about. But without other feasibilities - a real commitment to saving impoverished children worldwide - it turns out that it is technically infeasible. The same, of course, is true of addressing climate change and peak energy - it was wholly technically feasible for us to begin transitioning to a renewable energy economy in the 1970s, at which point both of these crises would be manageable and minor concerns. It is still technically feasible, although enormously difficult that we could drop industrial emissions dramatically. It is not, however, economically or politically feasible that we do so, as evidenced by the fact that we're not.

Thus, whenever people answer my suggestions for how to cut back on energy or resource usage with "but personal refrigerators are one of the most important inventions ever, they keep food from spoiling" they miss the point - the point is that we know that we can't have 3 billion personal refrigerators of the size and sort that Americans are accustomed to and have a functioning planet. Thus, even those people accustomed to having them may not always be able to have personal fridges. Greer observes that whenever he discusses the possibility that the internet might not always be here, he gets the same response - "but the internet is so useful, and it is technically feasible..." It is true - but that doesn't mean we'll prioritize resources for the internet to always be available - or that it will be available to a poorer mainstream population outside of public libraries (and that we'll have public libraries, given the race to cut their budgets.)

Gail the Actuary at the The Oil Drum I think framed the question most usefully for me:

"I've discovered when you say, "There may not be medications", I get a lot of arguments that this is the highest use, so of course we would have medications, even if we had nothing else. Also, if I say there may not be plastics, someone believes that since they take such a small share of the petroleum, surely they will be spared. And so on."

The reality of our situation is that whatever balance we eventually strike in a world of shortfalls, we are likely to leave some needs - probably many needs - inadequately met. And we know this because in poorer societies we run into these realities all the time - it isn't a lack of technical feasibility that prevents poor children from getting vaccinations or rehydration liquids and dying of preventable diseases - it is the underlying feasibilities - problems of poverty and transportation and resource allocation, corruption and disruption. There will always be competing priorities, many of them compelling, many of them compelling to those in power.

Look at how this is playing out right now as the states, most facing the largest budget crisis since the 1930s, struggle to figure out how to cover a range of very necessary human services on desperately underfunded budgets - and advocates make the correct and compelling case for the harm done by cutting any particular program. Thus, services to the disabled, education for children and free public parks are all in competition with one another. Other things that could be cut in a rational society can't be for a host of reasons, mostly political in the worst sense.

Or we could think of it in the terms provided by The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update - the popular perception of TLTG is that it was wrong in all particulars, but in fact, its scenarios have actually held up very well. And it usefully articulates in a deeply coherent way the way we struggle to allocate resources in a limit constrained world:

"The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. It is true that we did not include in the original World3 model technological prgress at rates that would automatically solve all problems associated wtith exponential growth in the human ecological footprint....[But] in several scenarios we test accellerated technological advance and possible future technical leaps beyond these 'normal' improvements. What if materials are almost entirely recycled? What if land yield doubles again and yet again? What if emissions are reduced at 4% per year over the coming century?

Even with such assumptions, the model world tends to overshoot its limits. Even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that we believe is possible, if these are the only changes, the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse." (TLTG:TTYU p. 204-5)

Looked at in isolation, it becomes possible to do all sorts of things. And indeed, many of those things probably will be done - and some of them will even be completed. But the full scale "rescue of society" strategies become increasingly unlikely, precisely because most of the rescue strategies fail to acknowledge what Greer correctly calls the whole systems cost of maintaining them:

"I feel my fate in what I cannot fear," poet Theodore Roethke wrote in his most famous poem, "The Waking." He could have been speaking for any of us; as individuals, communities, or societies, it's not the problems we dread but the ones we're unable to take seriously, or fail to recognize as problems at all, that end up dragging us down.

Some of the responses to last week's Archdruid Report post brought that point forcefully home to me. The theme of that post, as regular readers will remember, is that it's meaningless to talk about the efficiency of machines vis-a-vis human beings unless the costs of the whole system needed to produce, maintain, and operate the machines is compared to the costs of the whole system needed to do the same for the human beings. In response to the post, a flurry of critics on and off the comments page of this blog presented arguments that simply ignored the system costs I'd spent the entire post discussing. I would have had no complaints if they'd disagreed with my analysis, or even argued against the inclusion of system costs altogether - the logic of dissensus, the deliberate cultivation of divergent strategies, is as relevant to my work as it is anywhere else - but that's not what they did. Instead, they acted as though the issue of system costs had never been raised at all.

It's a fascinating lapse of reason, and it keeps on surfacing in contemporary discussions of the deindustrial future. The recurrent debates on the future of the internet here on The Archdruid Report come forcefully to mind. The point I've made there is that the survival of the internet doesn't depend on whether maintaining some form of internet is technically possible in a post-peak world, on the one hand, and desirable on the other; it depends on whether the internet will be able to pay for itself, and successfully compete for scarce dollars against lower-tech ways of sending letters and selling porn, in a future when energy and resources are costly and harshly limited, while human labor is abundant and cheap.

They go on to observe that in the end, what brings down the system is never a single factor - it isn't oil, or money, or pollution or climate change - and what maintains it is not technical feasibility or human ingenuity. The tendency towards collapse arises from a complex mix of factors that work together - and being good at putting off limits through technical ingenuity doesn't necessarily help:

"....the more successfully society puts off its limits through economic and technical adaptations, the more likely it is to run into several of them at the same time. In most World3 runs, including many we have not shown here, the world system does not totally run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capability. What it runs out of is the ability to cope." (TLTG:TTYU 223)

In relationship to this systems cost, Greer picks up another favorite thread of mine - the fact that having so very many people in the formal economy actually hurts us in an era of constraint, and observes, as I have in the past, that the removal of one member of each two income household (and the combining of many single income households with family members or other single income households or friends) would have an enormous effect on the economy at large:

I'd like to discuss another example at this point, though, because it bears directly on one of the central themes I've been developing here in recent months. What would you say, dear reader, if I told you that I've come up with a way to eliminate unemployment in the United States - yes, even in the face of the current economic mess? What if I explained that it would also improve the effective standard of living of many American families and decrease their income tax burdens? And that it would also increase our economic resilience and sustainability, and simultaneously cause a significant decrease in the amount of automobile traffic on America's streets and highways? Would you be all for it?

No, dear reader, you wouldn't. Permit me to explain why.

Right now, many two-income families with children in the United States are caught in a very curious economic bind. I haven't been able to find statistics, but I personally know quite a few families for whom the cost of paid child care and one partner's costs for commuting, business clothes, and all the other expenses of employment, approaches or even exceeds the take-home pay of one partner. Factor in the benefits of shifting to a lower tax bracket, and for a great many of these families, becoming a single-income family with one partner staying out of the paid work force would actually result in an increase in disposable income each month.

This is even before factoring in the financial elephant in the living room of the old one-income family: the economic benefits of the household economy. It's only in the last half dozen decades that the home has become nothing more than a center of consumption; before then, it was a place where real wealth was produced. It costs a great deal less to buy the raw materials for meals than to pick up something from the supermarket deli on the way home from work, as so many people do these days, or to fill the pantry and the fridge with prepackaged processed food; it costs a great deal less to buy yarn than to purchase socks and afghans of anything like the quality a good knitter can make; it costs a great deal less to grow a good fraction of a family's vegetables in a backyard garden than to buy them fresh at the grocery, if you can get them at all.

The difference in each case - and examples like this could be multiplied manyfold - is made by the household economy. Economists like to dismiss the household economy as inefficient, but it's worth remembering that "efficiency" in current economic jargon is defined as labor efficiency - that is an economic process is considered more efficient if it uses less human labor, no matter how wildly inefficent it is in any other sense. Economists also like to dismiss the household economy because it lacks economies of scale, and here they're on firmer ground. Still, there's another factor that more than counterbalances this; much of the value of an employee's labor - as much, as Marxists like to remind us, as the employer can get away with taking - goes to support his employer, while all of the value produced by labor in the household market remains with the family and is used directly, without being mediated through the money economy.

One of the things that I've argued a number of times is that along with vast influxes of energy and resources, we've never had long periods of economic growth in the modern era without shifting huge portions of the population out of the informal economy and into the formal one. in my essay "Peeling the Onion" I track the history of these moves - from the 1930s into the 1970s, the massive elimination of American and European farmers and the shift of farm and subsistence workers into the formal economy represents the first major wave. The second one, beginning in the 1960s (actually, it began in the 1940s - despite 50s mythos, women working outside the home never did decline to pre-war levels or anything like it) was the large scale move towards two income households. And since the 1980s, there has been the massive shift of workers in the Global South into factories and cities.

In all these cases, these shift simultaneously create new workers and new consumers - and I think it is important to remember this because there are strains of the energy resource movement that view energy as the primary economic driver. In fact, the very fact that in order to use more energy we have to have more industrial consumers is significant - because we are running bang against the material limits worldwide of more than just oil and gas and coal - we're hitting the end of vast new worker populations to feed that growth.

With more than half of the world's population presently in cities, and with developed nations having agrarian populations in the low single digits, we are running bang against a big question - how few people can we have in the informal economy. Remember, as I observe in _Depletion and Abundance_, building on the work of the father of Peasant Economics, Teodor Shanin, the informal economy is larger than the formal economy - it includes not only subsistence work, but also barter (which you are technically supposed to put on your tax forms...I bet you do, don't you ;-)), under-the-table work, criminal activity (which may constitute as much as 20% of the world economy), the household economy and the volunteer economy (which may seem trivial, until you think of every institution in your community that wouldn't work without it).

In the Global North, we are seeing the price of the externalization of the household and informal economy - we see it in the health consequences of food for people who no longer cook, the childhood obesity crisis, in which children are simultaneously fed outsourced food and left in front of inexpensive televisions as babysitters (the average American child between 2 and 5 spends 32 hours a week in front of some kind of screen). We see it in the crisis we face in elder care, the deep indebtedness of young families struggling to pay for childcare, food, and housing. We see it in the cost to families in time and resources, and the cost to public institutions that lack for volunteers.

In the Global South, we see this playing out in a new kind of food crisis - for the first time the world's hungriest people are not poor rural land owners who don't own enough land to feed themselves, but urban dwellers who followed the dollar and found themselves tied into a worldwide financial crisis created by institutions and situations well beyond their control - and who now have no money to buy food and no land to grow it on.

That said, reconstituting the informal economy is not an easy thing - the poor of the Global South no longer own their land. And families in the US, as Greer observes, don't find it easy to imagine giving up one houshold income. There are compelling reasons for this, not just, as Greer points out, the lure of the monthly income.

One of these is the persistent social inequity between men and women. Women still make less money than men do - so while Greer rightly points out that more men could become househusbands than do (and he speaks from experience), he leaves out that financial pressures, and the material realities of childbearing and breastfeeding often press the decision on women.

With a 50% lifetime divorce rate, the woman who steps wholly out of the workforce long enough to bear and nurse two children, or because of lower income steps out in favor of the household economy risks a great deal - becoming too economically dependent to be able to leave. And this is not trivial in a society where domestic violence is disturbingly common.

And yet, there are factors pushing the other way - male unemployment has been much higher than female unemployment. If men can be persuaded to embrace other definitions (small farmer is probably an easier name to take than househusband for most) it might be possible to imagine such a shift. Moreover, younger men are much more willing to do domestic work than older ones - and those are the ones having children right now. And in a society where longer periods out of the workforce are becoming more common, it may be possible to imagine that the stigma will abate somewhat.

We do know that this is already happening to an extent - a recent news report demonstrates that even before the recession US households numbers were falling - that 1.2 million households disappeared even though the population grew by 3.4 million. All those parents and kids living together and combined families represent possibilities - and possibilities not just that one person could leave the formal economy, at great potential personal cost, but that more could. That is, a larger number of adults living together allows for all to be employed less than full time or at lower pressure, less demanding jobs when possible, or for some to be unemployed. Moreover, multi-adult combined households offer the possibility of a measure of insulation for families that do break up - because realistically 40 years at a 9 to 5 job is a high price to pay for insurance against divorce or the death of a spouse. No other risk management strategy costs us so much. One of the most useful benefits of the multi-adult household is potentially the fact that it may insulate everyone from the worst outcomes of a family break up.

In the first essay (of many) I ever wrote on this subject, "Peak Oil is a Women's Issue" I argued that the women's movement has yet to fully come to terms with the degree to which modern feminism's view of the world, goals and objectives has been shaped by a cheap energy, deeply corporatized society. The dominant feminism (since there are many) that emerged and was extremely successful was also a feminist model that served corporate and industrial interests - often at the expense of women's actual interests (I should be clear that other feminists worked powerfully to critique this model). In fact, the model of feminism that emerged was so wholly coherent with the industrial growth economy's goals that we couldn't have done better without commissioning a study project. That feminism allowed itself to be coopted into believing that women were more free when working for an employer who timed their bathroom breaks than when working in the household economy, that the only possible insurance against patriarchal repression was 40 years of employment in the industrial economy, rather than the reshaping of our social models should make us extremely critical and suspicious.

The emerging reality is this - I would argue that women are in some ways more free, and in many ways more constrained by this model, but most constrained by the fact that we mostly accept uncritically that we are better off having abandoned the household economy for the formal one, and constrained by the fact that we have tied our interests to institutions that most of us recognize do not have our interests at heart. And that's precisely the argument I make about technical feasibility - in many ways, our number running on what is technically possible to "save" society blinds us to the fact that this focus on outer range possibilities for which the underlying conditions are not evident actually forces us into new kinds of constraint - as long as our eyes are fixated purely on the numbers, we do not see the world in which we really and fully live. As long as we are fixated on the dollars, we do not see the possibilities that really are available to us.



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Great post. Did not know this:


The in-the-round consideration of systems costs goes some of the way towards answering the techno-optimism of an Amory Lovins... his song hasn't changed at all BTW and he insists we are still on target... if you haven't seen his latest presentation, any reacting you could do to it would interest me as more of a clueless type.

"we've never had long periods of economic growth in the modern era without shifting huge portions of the population out of the formal economy and into the informal one"

I think you mean the other way around, right? :-)

We have a governmental system ill suited to long term planning. Our government makes small or large shifts in direction or emphasis every two, four, six, eight years. So I seriously doubt that our government will serve us well in anticipating or dealing with an extended crisis.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

The link you use to your post "Peak oil is a women's problem" does not include the comments! And as I recall, the comments on that one were unusually interesting. Can't you make the link to your own blog, so it's functional? :-)

(in your spare time?)