Month: September 2016

Less is Better

It has become a matter of some faith in our society that more is better. A good majority of us tend to want more money, more stuff, more energy, more information, and so on down what can turn into a very long list. If some is good, after all, more is better. It’s a common belief but also a common misunderstanding, because more isn’t automatically better. It can be, obviously; due to the way we organize our economy, it is better to have more money up to a certain point. It’s better, as well, to have more food if you don’t have enough to sustain you. But once you do have enough to sustain you, it’s best not to have too much more. If you do, you either are going to let it go to waste or you’re going to eat too much, and both decisions are likely to harm both you and your community. In other words, it’s best to have enough and it’s bad to have too little or too much.

One of the key reasons more isn’t necessarily better is the law of diminishing returns. This law holds that, if all other variables are held constant, the increase in production accrued from a single unit of input will eventually decrease per unit of input. In other words, if I’m extremely hungry and I eat dinner, that dinner will have a significant impact on my level of hunger. If I eat two dinners, the second dinner is going to have much less of an impact on my hunger, simply because my hunger has already largely been sated. And if I eat a third dinner? Well, now we’ve moved a step beyond the law of diminishing returns and entered the realm of negative returns, which is when an additional unit of input actually creates a decrease in production. The third dinner, in other words, not only is not reducing my hunger, but it’s actually increasing my physical discomfort by making me overly full and uncomfortable.

These are simple lessons most of us learn early in life. One slice of your favorite dessert brings great satisfaction; two is overdoing it; fifty is putting your very health at risk. (I’ll hope nobody reading this has indulged to such a degree.) Alcohol is another fine example, as are glasses of water. To this day, I sometimes react to too much salt intake and too little hydration by pounding a few glasses of water, only to realize a few moments later that I’m now far too full. Take it to an even greater extreme, and you literally will die from water intake.

Unfortunately, we are far less adept at recognizing the importance of these factors when it comes to, say, our accumulation of wealth, the size of our homes, our overall intake of sugar (we may have the “less than fifty slices” rule down, but we aren’t as good at limiting our overall sugar intake as a general rule), the amount of energy we burn, the complexity of our digital gadgets, the amount of stuff we acquire, and so on. That’s unfortunate, because the optimum level of so many elements of our lives lie on a scale that, rather than being bad at one end and good at the other, is bad on both ends. Most of the things that bring us happiness and satisfaction are things we want enough of, but not too much and not too little. Unfortunately for us today, modern industrialized lifestyles are burdened and devalued with too much of most everything.

It’s a curious and unfortunate reality in our society that we tend to think in linear patterns. It’s one of the dominant ways that our particular culture views the world—not, mind you, a way of viewing the world that humans do as a matter of course, but simply a way of viewing the world that our particular culture does as a matter of course, and which other cultures throughout history have often not. I suspect there are multiple reasons for this. A good part of it boils down to our common adherence to the myth of progress that John Michael Greer has done such a brilliant job of illuminating over the years on his blog. This idea pervades our view of the world, flattening the vagaries of human history into a single, overarching narrative of betterment over time—a narrative that, frankly, doesn’t fit the facts. In addition to that myth is the sort of reductionist thinking so dominant these days. Reductionist thinking is critical to industrialization, current economic thought, and the scientific process. It allows us to focus in on individual variables and to suss out some of the consequences and impacts of specific actions, so long as we can control all other variables. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of thinking that tends to eliminate consideration of whole systems and unintended consequences. While it’s a thought process and approach that can work very well within the context of highly controlled studies, we very often apply it to human behavior at the individual and collective level, as well as to the ecosystems around us, which are all applications in which reductionist thinking fails miserably.

Put these two tendencies of thought together—the idea of a straight-arrow progression of betterment over time and reductionist modes of thinking that leave us focusing on single variables without accounting for the whole system consequences of any one action—and apply them to our own individual lives and what you will get is a tendency to obsess over particular variables, flatten the effects of those variables into a single consequence, discount the many other whole system effects of those variables, and act accordingly. This is how we come to think that it’s good to have more money and to pursue that goal with a single-minded focus on the positive aspects of having more money and no regard for the negative aspects that can come from it. To make matters worse, we often will assume positive impacts regardless of our actual experience, and will fail to notice the kicking in not only of the law of diminishing returns, but also the arrival of negative returns. We become so fixated on the idea of more being better, we don’t even recognize when more has become worse.

Of course, money is not the only such fixation here. Energy use, material goods, and various forms of stimulation also fit the bill, as do a wide variety of other variables (most of which fit into one of those categories). This is where the idea of LESS, coined by John Michael Greer, comes in. The acronym stands for “Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation” and it’s a critical part of any response to the troubles we face today. If we are to have a better future than our current path suggests, it’s going to come through an intentional movement of LESS spreading throughout our culture and society, both at the individual and collective levels. However, as important as that is, LESS is not just a way of responding to our current predicaments, it’s also a way of living a better and happier life. Simply put, LESS is better.

That’s the reality we need to wrap our minds around if we’re going to improve our lives. As we have laden ourselves down with too much money and wealth, debts of various kinds, energy usage, stuff, and distracting stimulation, the good majority of us in America and other industrialized nations have long since passed the point of diminishing returns for these variables, and in many instances have moved into the realm of negative returns. While we continue to too often think of these whole system aspects of our lives in linear, non-system terms—more is better—we actually have moved to the point in which more is worse, and that adding in new forms of digital distractions, higher burn rates of energy, new gadgets and machinery, greater wealth, and so on down the list is actively degrading and worsening our lives: stripping it of meaning and satisfaction, eroding our relationships and community ties, impeding our ability to think clearly, and doing all this while simultaneously corrupting and destroying the livability of our and our children’s future.

Therefore, we need LESS. At the same time, though, it’s a bit more complicated than this. LESS is a helpful approach for our current time due to the fact that so many of us have too much, but making do with less is just as susceptible to the law of diminishing returns and negative returns as living it up with more is. Granted, most of the people reading this are likely far away from having too little, and far away from having what will ultimately be a sustainable share of the world’s resources, but replacing one across-the-board rule with both positive and negative potential impacts with an opposite across-the-board rule with the same is not a solution, it’s just the opposite way of perpetuating the same problem.

The solution to properly scaled lives lies in removing the concept of a linear scale from the way we view the role of energy, stuff, and stimulation in our lives and instead looking at it as part of a continuum, in which one end features too little, the opposite end features too much, and somewhere in the middle is an appropriately scaled life. This, of course, requires a greater degree of thinking and self-reflection—and the first step to accomplishing that for most of us lies in both the elimination of a certain amount of distraction and stimulation from our lives, and in the dedication of a portion of our time to thought and reflection. That’s one of the first steps. Once we are able to think clearly, we can begin the process of determining how much is enough, how much is too little, and how much is too much.

As it happens, that’s not the easiest process. First, we have to dedicate the time and attention to thinking about these issues. Next, we have to actually take note of our reactions to various forms of wealth, activity, and stimulation. This, however, can be a trap at first. There’s a reason that we overload ourselves with too many possessions, too much wealth, too much energy, and too much stimulation, and that lies in the fact that all these things tend to provide at least a short term positive impact. It’s easy and satisfying, in a very fleeting way, to poke at a phone instead of thinking about our lives. It’s easy and satisfying, in a very fleeting way, to down a bag of chips or a sugary treat rather than take the time to make a tasty and healthy meal made from real ingredients. It’s easy and satisfying, in a very fleeting way, to watch a movie or television show instead of going out into the garden and weeding, or planting a new bed of vegetables, or harvesting the crop. It’s harder to do all the latter activities, and yet it’s satisfying and fulfilling in a way that’s not fleeting but is instead lasting and—via a sustained commitment—even transformative.

Yes, living with less than what the modern American lifestyle calls for is transformative over time, but it does take a commitment to reach that transformation, and it takes an observation of long terms changes as well as short term ones. Granted, living with LESS will provide you short term positive impacts just as living with more will, but it’s in the long term impacts on your life that the true value of choosing LESS manifests itself. That’s why it can sometimes be a trap to take note of your reactions to living with LESS, because we’re much better at noticing short term and immediate reactions than we are in evaluation long term and lasting impacts. It’s the latter that truly reveal the benefits of living with LESS.

Therefore, the next step in determining the proper scale of our life is to observe the long term impacts of purposeful, sustained reductions in our self-apportionment of energy, stuff, and stimulation. A commitment to reduced usage, even in the face of loss of short-term positive impacts, will tend to reveal long term positive impacts that can dramatically change the way a person views and understands the world. Furthermore, such a commitment begins to create a positive feedback loop of affirmation in which learning to live with less leads to an increased desire to live with less, and a movement away from the more is better ethos that so dominate our culture.

As such, there’s a critical final step here that serves as a part of a lifelong, never-ending calibration of how much is enough: the range in which a properly scaled life exists can shift. What I’ve found in my own explorations of LESS is that, as I reduce the amount of energy and resources I use, the amount of energy and resources I feel I need to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled reduces as well. In other words, living with less not only makes you happier by eliminating the excesses of your life that actually degrade your quality of life, but it also can shift how much you need to be happy over time. Of course, this process too is subject to the law of diminishing returns, with the initial shifts for someone used to an outsized, modern industrial lifestyle capable of being very large until you’ve reduced to the point that further reductions will be marginal, and may not prove reductions at all. But it’s satisfying and rewarding to experience those initial positive feedback loops, in which a simplified lifestyle feeds on itself, opening entirely new avenues of living that may have previously been unthinkable.

That, as well, is an immense relief. When I wrote that America feels exhausted to me, I was trying to get at the stress and pressure that comes with attempting to maintain a standard American lifestyle. Frankly, it’s not a natural human lifestyle and it’s not one that our planet will support. As such, it’s a terrible strain. We are constantly fighting against an array of pressures that push us away from such an unnatural, unfulfilling, and unsustainable lifestyle. It’s tiring to constantly fight that, and it’s particularly tiring to fight that when you’re being told at every turn that you shouldn’t have to fight it; that this is the natural way of life even though every bit of the natural world’s feedback—including your own internal sense of evolutionary calibration—is telling you the opposite. Dropping that fight, letting go of that outsized life, and embracing something smaller, simpler, more elegant, and more fulfilling, is one of the great liberations available to us in our current time and place. It’s a gift, and it’s one that far too many of us are rejecting due to our inability to see it as such. Living with less is better, and it’s far past time that we recognize that, act accordingly, and accept with gratitude the relief, joy, and newfound lives that come with it.


Addendum: I’m pleased to note that an interview I conducted with Greg Moffitt of Legalise Freedom is up and available for your listening pleasure. In this, I speak about Into the Ruins, this blog, connection to the natural world, and the fate of industrial society. Frankly, I think it gets better the longer you listen. You can check it out right here and consider sharing it with anyone you think would be interested. Thanks!

A Life in Debt

Last week’s post didn’t end up exactly where I intended it to, veering closer to polemic than I first envisioned. I’m okay with that; part of figuring out a response to your predicament includes identifying the problems, and part of motivating others to stay on an alternate path is reiterating the devastating consequences of the well-traveled one. Still, it’s important to write also about the positive aspects of that alternate path, not just the lack of certain negative ones.

To tease this out, then, let’s consider what’s thought of as normal in this country. (Not, I should note, what necessarily is normal.) It’s considered normal, or at least ideal, for an adult to have their own personal vehicle; to be gainfully employed, hopefully making a decent wage and receiving benefits; to have a smart phone and constant or near-constant access to the internet; to have a variety of screens at home that provide a variety of on-demand digital distractions; to have a variety of “labor-saving” appliances, such as a washing machine and dryer, a dishwasher, a microwave, and so on; to be up-to-date with a variety of wide-scale cultural obsessions, generally centered around television shows, movies, sports, internet memes, and celebrities; to have an online presence; and to be available to others via phone or internet at most all hours of the day.

That list could be modified—particularly in accord with the geographic location of any individual within America or the industrialized world at large—by removing specific items from it or adding others, or doing both, but I think it takes a pretty close stab at the cultural vision of what an average middle-class American life may look like. Conducting a close scrutiny of it and allowing yourself a few minutes to think about the implications of these expectations reveals two related results stemming from pursuit of the above: a need for a high level of energy and resource usage (more commonly thought of in terms of money) and a distinct lack of distraction-free time that can be used for reflection, relaxation, and renewal.

To my mind, I consider this two different types of debt. The first comes in the form of money. It may manifest as actual debt—a mortgage, a car loan, credit card debt, and so on—or it may come in the form of a necessary and expected amount of income. In traditional parlance, this isn’t debt, of course. However, I don’t think it’s outside the bounds of reason to think of it in such terms. By committing yourself to a certain level of monthly bills, you restrict your economic and financial resiliency, you create certain real and imagined limits on your life choices and—should your income fail at any point to match your level of incurred expenses—you increase the likelihood of taking on actual debt or, at best, forcing hard choices upon yourself (and your family, if you have one), with the attendant likelihood of inflicting emotional, psychological, and/or physical hardship.

Looking back at our imagine American middle-class lifestyle, there actually are quite a lot of bills that come due with it. Housing is expensive in much of this country, whether you own or rent. Labor-saving appliances cost money, either through direct purchase or through increased rental rates, and they require a steady flow of energy and resource usage that typically imposes costs of its own. Smart phones cost quite a bit themselves and come with expensive monthly payments for their use; the same with televisions, laptops, tablets, other devices, and the various monthly subscriptions for internet, cable, and other forms of entertainment that come with them. Cars are a massive expense in their purchase, maintenance, and fueling, and the common desire to have nice cars and new ones only adds to that expense. All of these markers of a good American living add up to quite the monthly bills, thus requiring a steady source of reliable income, which further requires a series of specific and limited life choices for those hoping to maintain these comforts, conveniences, and markers of success.

That’s one form of debt that stems from a standard American lifestyle. The other form of debt such a lifestyle incurs is a time deficit. Granted, a middle-class American, at a literal level, has just as much time as an upper-class or lower-class one. We all get 24 hours per day and the difference in the final tally only can be calculated once we’re dead. However, time that is free of distraction has its own important qualities, and that is something that appears to be ever more lacking in America and much of the industrial world.

Estimates vary, as they always do, but Americans on average spend many hours per day staring at screens. A recent study suggests an average of more than 10 hours per day, in fact. That is a lot of time. The reasons for staring at screens are multitude, including for one’s work, reading the news, reading delightful blogs such as this one, writing delightful blogs such as this one, looking at pretty pictures, watching colorful shapes move around on a piece of glass, exercising one’s screen-poking skills, or perhaps watching an event or occurrence that is literally taking place directly in front of you but is somehow just so much more compelling when viewed via a screen instead of via the emittance of light from the actual objects or beings you’re watching. But whatever the reasons we’re staring at screens, that time is usually lacking in thoughtful reflection and instead loaded with carefully designed distraction and stimulation.

With each passing year, it seems that we pack ourselves full of more and more information, but at the detriment of knowledge. We spend hours following the exploits of celebrities and politicians and fictional characters, but we spend quite a few less hours reflecting on our own exploits. We keep up to date with the latest internet memes, track our social media feeds, and watch endless hours of fiction in all kinds of forms, but we often know little about the working of the actual physical world around us. Furthermore, we stay so busy all year round, we often have little or no time to reflect on the ways we are living our lives and what kind of lives we are living as a result.

Allow me an indulgence here. When I worked on vegetable farms, my life took on a seasonal cadence that I came to both love and appreciate. The rhythm of my work varied dramatically throughout the course of the year. It would begin to ramp up in the late winter and early spring, with light and relatively relaxing days of work. The number of hours worked and the intensity of that work increased throughout the spring. Once into summer, I typically worked long and hard days, ended them somewhere between tired and exhausted, slept hard, awoke early (though not as early as a lot of farmers) and went back at it. By late summer and into early fall, the work became consistently exhausting, both because of the long days and heavy physical labor, but also through the accumulation of the season’s physical and emotional tolls.

But then fall would settle in and the pace begin to relax. Farmers markets ended, the CSA would wrap up, all the fall plantings were in, and the harvests would start to ease back. The work load lightened throughout the fall and the exhaustion I felt transformed into something lighter, into a much more simple tiredness. The days shortened, both in terms of hours worked and the actual length of the days, the physical world in sync with my working experience. As the days shortened and the work lightened, my tiredness would begin to transition into renewal and reinvigoration, and that would accelerate as we put the farm to bed and I moved into a winter of rest and renewal.

The winters were key. They offered weeks of little work and lots of relaxation, including time for thought and reflection. There were still chores, of course, with animals needing to be taken care of, a few crops left to tend on occasion, clean up to be done, and improvements and repairs to be made before the next growing season. But the pace was dramatically different and the time deficit turned into a surplus. It was in those months that I often did my best thinking, and it was in those months that I was able to take stock of my life, the way I lived it, what was working for me and what was failing—and then to make adjustments to my life as necessary.

My experience with the standard American lifestyle is that such a seasonal rhythm and, in particular, an annual period of time surplus is a rarity. Most of us work jobs that continue at much the same pace throughout the year, with little variation and certainly no regard for seasons. For those of us who actually receive vacation time, we often use it to pack in non-work experiences that range from fun and refreshing to miserable and disappointing, but that too often leave little time or space for thought and reflection. And for the time we have available to use that isn’t spent at work—our evenings and weekends, or the equivalent for those who don’t work standard work weeks—we often pack it with so many distractions, digital and otherwise, that we’re left with little time to stop, think, and reflect.

That is our time debt. Coupled with the aforementioned money debt, the results of the standard American lifestyle is often a tiring life of busyness and distraction, with little time for rest and relaxation, and which is often straining at the edge of what can be comfortably obtained within our financial and time constraints. It commonly pushes us to the edge and reduces or eliminates our personal and financial flexibility, so that if anything goes wrong, it will manifest closer to a disaster than a setback. Thus, it takes an exhaustion already stoked by financial constraints and lack of time for rest and relaxation and compounds it with fear and concern of factors that are largely (though not completely) outside of our control—such as political, economic, and ecological stability.

There is, in my estimation, a much better way to live, and that’s by increasing our resiliency through a reduction of our money and time debts as defined here. We can look at many of those standard ways of living a middle-class American life that we are currently engaged in and choose not to accept them. Perhaps that means sharing a car with one or more other adults, or living without one entirely. Perhaps it means ditching the smart phone and its attendant distractions, freeing up more time to think and reflect and relax. Perhaps that means not spending your money on a dishwasher and instead doing your dishes by hand; or foregoing the dryer and hang drying your clothes instead; or donating the microwave and reintroducing cooking into your life, using real ingredients. It may mean eliminating your internet connection and either going without or making due with the library’s free one; letting your laptop die and not replacing it; killing your cable subscription and either dramatically cutting back on how much television you watch, or eliminating it entirely.

All of these actions can introduce new resiliency and flexibility into your life. Most of them will reduce your monthly bills—some of them dramatically—and many of them will provide you with additional, distraction-free time that you can use to relax or think, reflect on your life and consider better ways to live it, or introduce new and fulfilling activities that leave you happier and healthier. They can also push you farther back from the edge: a reduction in monthly bills is essentially an income you can keep even if you lose your job. The more financial and psychological flexibility you have in your life, the less concerned you are with elements of the world that are largely out of your control, and the more capable you are of dealing with them if they play out in a way that inflicts damage on your life. The more you reduce these debts, the more you turn possible future calamities into possible future setbacks.

It’s that latter aspect, to my mind, that is one of the most important benefits of living a life with fewer distractions, fewer income requirements, and more flexibility and freedom. I expect the future to be hard due to our very dumb collective decisions. That concerns me. But, if I’m honest, it concerns me much less than if I did not know how to grow my own food, if I didn’t garden, if I did not have experience living on far less money than I currently make, if I had car payments and a large mortgage payment and credit card payments, if I lived paycheck to paycheck, if I wasn’t happier walking places than driving places, if I invested my self-worth in having certain material possessions or projecting a certain image of myself to the world that was rooted in financial success, if I didn’t have a strong understanding of how I use energy and resources and in what ways I could cut back if need be, and so on down the list. All of those elements of my life are pieces that I have learned over the preceding years by actively rejecting many of the assumptions and expectations of modern society and instead learning different ways of living—some of which I’ve stuck with and some I haven’t, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Personally, I value flexibility and freedom, and I am a person who is not fond of taking dramatic risks. I want to have a certain amount of control over my life, or at least feel that I do. And what I have found is that living with fewer distractions, in ways that require less money, being more familiar with physical labor, and having a greater understanding of exactly what it takes to literally make my living leaves me happier, healthier, more in control of my life both at an actual level and at a perceived level, more flexible in the life decisions I can make, more relaxed, and less stressed. Both the life I live today and the lives I’ve lived over the past decade—all of which rejected to some degree or another modern American and industrial assumptions of what makes for a good life—have proven far more satisfying and rewarding than every version of the standard American or modern industrialized lifestyle that I have attempted to live before that.

In other words, living with less is a better, happier, and more fulfilling way to live. Period. It’s not a life of deprivation. The standard American lifestyle, as a matter of fact, is the actual life of deprivation.

As this blog moves forward, we’ll be talking more about that at both the individual and the national level, because it’s not just the individual American lifestyle that deprives us of happiness, fulfillment, and good work—it’s the national manifestations of our culture’s misguided beliefs at the economic, political, and cultural levels that do, as well. More on that soon.

America the Exhausted

One of the key beliefs we have in this society is that we must always be growing. This is an economic belief, of course, but I often notice it reaching into other areas of our lives—into the personal, the professional, even the daily. We believe in growth, and we believe in progress, and we believe always in the beneficence of more. It is through having more and more and constantly doing new things that we find meaning in our life.

This strikes me as an odd way to live. That isn’t to say I don’t do it myself; I have a very bad tendency to commit myself to too much and to think too ambitiously, imagining I can do a hundred things when, in reality, I can do about twenty—and even then not well. (Perhaps I can do ten well.) And yet, time and again I try to do a hundred, with predictably poor results. It is a very American way to live, and it’s a kind of living that’s driving this country into the ground.

We are trying to do far too much here in America. Unfortunately, we’ve structured our ways of living and our beliefs about what we can do around a reality that has not been in place for at least forty years, and probably closer to a hundred. We’ve convinced ourselves that we should be living as though we have access to abundant sources of cheap fossil fuels, easily tapped reserves of high-quality physical resources, and a well-functioning imperial stranglehold on the world at large. As it happens, all three of those realities have been true at one point or another, and there’s even a stretch of history in which they overlapped quite well. That time has passed, though, and pretending that it hasn’t is choking the life out of this country’s well-being while promising us a much more diminished future than we might otherwise have.

Under those three circumstances it might make a certain amount of sense to extend our political, economic, and military reach around the world; fling open our borders in an effort to drive a good chunk of the globe’s wealth and resources into our own hands; spend and consume as though the world was happy to provide us an infinite source of treasure; dump our wastes and effluents as though it was also happy to provide us a bottomless landfill; turn our backs on an honest living and its deep rewards in favor of a shallow and softening life of unfettered wealth; and distract ourselves throughout the entire adventure with an ever-more-complex series of gadgets and gizmos in an effort not to think about the effects of these decisions on our own lives and the world around us. Granted, I might argue against doing all those things on a variety of practical, ethical, and moral grounds even if we did have access to endless, cheap, and abundant energy and resources, as well as an unshakable empire. Yet we don’t have those three things—not anymore—and carrying out the above actions in their absence is a form of national suicide.

When I look around me, I see a country that is exhausted. It seems as though, with every passing year, we scramble more frantically to attempt to not only maintain what we already have, but to also claw yet more away from the rest of the world for ourselves. And year after year, some of us are successful at doing this while a good chunk more of us are thrown under the bus as a result. We’ve long since passed the point that we can maintain our overuse and abuse of the world at the individual level without someone else having to give up their own; the rising tide is long gone and we’re left instead with a choppy and ragged outflow that keeps taking a few more people out to sea with every passing day. By frantically clinging to our own rather than willingly taking a step back from our outsized lives, we condemn yet more people to misery—as well as our future selves and descendants.

Think for a moment about how we conduct ourselves as a nation. We’ve spread ourselves across the world, consuming as many other nations as we can in an effort to divert energy and resources to our own use and to impose our will upon the world’s order. We’ve shed our national industries one after the other while assuring ourselves it was for the overall betterment of America. We’ve replaced human workers with fossil fuel and machinery in the apparent belief that the use and diminishment of nonrenewable resources is a higher goal than our friends and neighbors having good work. We’ve concentrated much of the world’s wealth into the hands of a small minority of our population, and we impoverish and destroy the lives of more people every year in an effort to maintain that concentration. We have looked outward at every turn while our economic and political lives right here at home have been torn apart. We’ve comforted ourselves with cultural and digital distractions, as well as with the myth that if we continue on this destructive path, it will somehow make us happy in the end, even as the evidence continues to pile up that it is primarily doing the opposite.

When your life is falling apart, the rational response is to turn inward, stop the continued damage, and begin to put yourself back together. We reached that needful point long ago. And yet we continue to look outward. We do it as a nation, ignoring many of the problems we have here at home while we continue to dive into misadventures internationally, meddle in other countries’ business, and seek to impose our will upon a world that is fast turning its back on our failing empire. We do it individually, too, focusing on the lives of others—celebrities, fictional TV characters, politicians—while ignoring the troubles and mistakes of our own. And it is exhausting us at all levels. By distracting ourselves constantly, we have no time to deal with our own lives—whether at the national or individual level, or somewhere in between—and we compensate by ignoring the many brewing trouble points and letting them compound themselves into unwieldy predicaments we have no hope of handling.

We are failing because we can’t be honest about the reality of the world around us. We are no longer an untouchable imperial power; our global influence is waning as our empire continues to fail us. We are no longer rich in cheap energy and resources; the simple realities of energy and resource depletion have left us with fewer resources that are more expensive and of poorer quality. We are no longer reaping the benefits that come with strong ecosystems able to absorb our wastes and externalized costs; we’ve stripped our ecosystems of their resiliency under the weight of our collective abuses, and we now, on top of that, are paying the price of externalized costs coming back due to us via a destabilized climate and various forms of ecological blowback. As the consequences of our actions continue to hit us, we weaken and tire as a nation and as individuals, overwhelmed by these setbacks. Attempting to live our lives the exact same way under these new realities is sheer lunacy. It’s an exhausting fool’s game we cannot win.

Here’s the thing, though: it wasn’t always a fool’s game. If you set aside ethical and moral considerations, the practical aspect of our past actions are very clear. We exploited energy and resource reserves here and abroad; thoughtlessly externalized our costs by dumping the resultant pollution and wastes into our air, water, and soil; and pursued a worldwide empire because, on the whole, it greatly benefited us for a time. Does that mean it was the best course of action? Definitely not when considering the long term and probably not even when only considering the short time. But it worked regardless. It improved the lives and certain standards of living of millions of people in this country. It in no way did it evenly, and our national course of action devastated, destroyed, and ended the lives of a number of our citizens and a larger number of the world’s citizens, but it still benefited the U.S. Ultimately, that’s one of the most important reasons we’ve behaved the way we have as a nation, and the vast majority of us in this country are complicit to some degree or another.

But—again setting aside the ethical and moral consideration, as important as those are—the practical implications of our national behaviors have changed significantly. Simply put, we are no longer benefiting on the whole from empire, exploitation, and externalized costs. We’re losing. Our income from these misadventures has steadily ratcheted down over the preceding decades while the costs have soared. We kicked so many cans so far down the road that we have now stumbled upon a pile we may not even be able to get around. The consequences of our behavior have come due in a very big way and our frenzied attempts to deny those consequences while continuing on our merry way are not only ignoring an important reality, but making that reality far worse.

This is how a country injures itself, exhausts itself, and fails. We have reached that crossroad. There’s a reason it can feel so tiring, emptying, and dehumanizing living in this country. There’s a reason that few of us trust our political system, that we accept corruption as a matter of course, and that we often refuse to accept the proclamations of authority figures even when they aren’t blatantly lying to us and may actually be uttering a rare truth. There’s a reason that “elite” has become a dirty word. There’s a reason so many of us trash our homes, trash ourselves, trash our cities, trash our public spaces, trash our government, trash everything. It’s because America—through a long series of broken policies, actions, maneuvers, beliefs, and certainties—has bankrupted itself at nearly every level. It’s because we are tired and broken, overburdened, exhausted from overconsumption and lack of meaningful living—or alternately exhausted from hunger and being overworked—clawing at the edges of financial stability in a desperate attempt to hang on, or wasting away beneath too much money and its softening, corrupting effects. Meanwhile, we look around us at an array of authority figures, the vast majority of whom tell us that are problems aren’t real and that, if perhaps they are, we can fix them by continuing to do what’s causing them in the first place.

We are insane. And we are exhausted. And almost no one in power is willing to say it. In fact, even many of those who aren’t in power aren’t willing to say it. So the question now is how we’re going to react. Because, here’s the other thing: we don’t have to keep pursuing failed policies. We don’t have to keep digging the hole. We simply have to imagine all the smarter ways of living that are out there, but that we aren’t allowed to talk about.

As I hope is clear, I’m not talking about pursuing the standard set of policies espoused by the right, left, or the supposed middle. While there may still be a few useful things hidden in that grab bag of failure, they mostly consist of a frantic evasion of reality. I’m talking about pursing policies and principles that are for the most part unspoken and unspeakable in our current political system.

It’s time for us to reorient ourselves. We need to do this at the individual level by changing the ways we live, and we need to build on that into action at the local and national levels to change the way we conduct ourselves as a society and nation. We need to understand that the principles of exploitation, externalized costs, and empire are no longer enriching us but are instead now impoverishing us. And we need to change the ways in which we understand and interact with the world—ecologically, economically, politically, and otherwise.

If we don’t, we will continue down a path of impoverishment, exhaustion, and self-destruction. It’s that straightforward. We either start changing the way we live, or we continue to let it kill us.

I vote for the former. You?

The Ways of Contraction: Compounding Consequences

Back when I wrote my old blog, Of The Hands, I spent a fair amount of time discussing the concept of voluntary poverty. During the time I wrote that blog, I worked on a small-scale, off-grid (more or less) vegetable farm for room and board. A side job as a farm hand provided me as much as an additional $500 per month in income for other expenses. I had plenty of safeguards, as well; credit cards, family, a bit of savings I had managed to cobble together, and a certain amount of capital I brought with me to the work—primarily, a functioning car and laptop. Taken together—the covered room and board, the very small income, the previously-acquired capital, and a few last ditch safeguards—these elements kept me living comfortably (to my mind) and with a relatively low level of stress. By income level, I of course lived in poverty. By security, I did not.

Yet I lived on the edge in a few different ways. The primary one was the risk of injury. Any serious injury would eliminate my ability to work and, should it incur bills, would quickly wipe out what little financial security I had. A secondary one was through potential loss of capital. If my laptop died, I could have afforded to replace it if I so chose—which I probably would not have chose—but it would have taken a good chunk of my income or savings or both. More critically, if my car died or was to require any major repairs, I would have had some hard choices to make. Living in a rural area, it would have been very hard, though not impossible, to live without the convenience of a functional car. I knew that if anything major happened to my vehicle, I would have some tough choices to make.

That’s the thing about living with so little a cushion: a good series of unexpected expenses can make your life very challenging indeed, and even runs the risk of permanently altering your safety and security. Alternately, a continuing series of minor but also unexpected expenses parceled out over time can wear you down, slowly draining your small income and savings and pushing you ever closer to the edge. Eventually you get so close to the edge that it’s not only a big hit that could send you falling, but even an unexpected small one.

Welcome to the likely fate of America and, on a greater time scale, industrial civilization as a whole.

Understanding the full ramifications of this particular aspect of our predicament requires some thoughtful consideration of the other key elements of continued decline that I outlined in the last two posts here on Litterfall. The first is America’s sclerotic and failing empire, which puts us on the verge of losing access to quite a bit of the out-sized share of the world’s energy and physical resources we currently use, with no current plan or effort to use less in an organized way. While I still have some small hope that we may wise up enough to start the process of backing away from our empire—even if we don’t acknowledge that that’s what we’re doing, a possibility I’ll be writing about in a future post—current trend lines suggest quite the opposite. Instead, it appears that we’re intent on clinging tight to it no matter how deep into troubled waters it drags us, and suffering the consequences of that lack of foresight. The second consideration is that of the declining energy and resource base upon which we’ve built America’s economy and empire, as well as industrial civilization as a whole. Simply put, we are running low on oil and other fossil fuels and on a wide variety of key resources, minerals, and so on. We’ve entered an era of decline and resource shortage that promises to tighten the vise around our civilization with each coming year.

Not only, in fact, are we running ever lower on key energy sources and resources—as I outlined in last week’s post—but we also are directing more of the energy and resources we do have toward extracting new supplies of those same resources. Having already extracted and exploited the most easily-accessible oil, highest quality ores, and so on, we have dived deep into the lower grade versions of the same. Rather than opening up crude oil sources close to the surface that flow under their own internal pressure, we’re now conducting deep water drilling and fracking shale in what is little more than activities designed to scrape the bottom of the barrel. This means that we’re using far more energy and resources to get a barrel of oil in today’s world than we were a hundred years ago, when America and the industrial world were kicking growth into overdrive and reaping the benefits of the upslope of energy and resource extraction.

This is not hyperbole; while the calculations are complex and uncertain, it’s widely accepted that the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of today’s oil is far lower than that of the early days of oil production. Early returns were estimated at 100 to 1; in other words, one barrel of oil’s worth of energy could produce 100 barrels of new oil. Today, that estimate is down closer to 20:1 for the world’s oil production, meaning we get 20 barrels of oil in return for every one invested. Shale oil, meanwhile, is estimated at a 5:1 EROEI while ultra deep water drilling is in the same approximate range.

This is important, as it tells us how resilient our economy is and how much energy we have available for parts of the economy not dedicated to energy extraction. For instance, the world produced an estimated 78 million barrels per day of crude oil and condensate in 2014, which works out to 28.47 billion barrels over the course of the year. If the EROEI of that crude and condensate was 20:1, then about 1.42 billion barrels of that oil was used to extract the 28.47 billion barrels, leaving a bit over 27 billion barrels for use in the rest of the world’s economy. Now let’s say that the overall EROEI was 5:1, which is in the range of tight oil and tar sands (which may actually be lower), both of which have been growing their share of the oil market and providing most all of the world’s recent growth in oil production. At a 5:1 EROEI, you would have to quadruple the amount of oil you are dedicating to the simple business of extracting oil, boosting your 1.42 billion barrels to about 5.7 billion—and dropping your available oil for the rest of the economy from 27 billion to 22 billion barrels. That’s still a heck of a lot of oil, obviously, but it’s a significant amount less that’s available to the non-extraction economy, and that difference matters.

The trouble here is multifold. First of all, we built a good share of our industrial economy on an energy supply featuring a 100:1 EROEI or better, and we designed it for that sort of slack, crafting it based on the realities of the day. Over time, we’ve changed the way we craft our economy and its new infrastructure, creating an ever-greater focus on energy efficiency and tighter operations as an economically rational, if not particularly conscious, response to ever-tightening EROEI’s and thinner margins. We have also gone back to retrofit much of the existing infrastructure to the degree that we can. Much of the industrial focus on energy efficiency and conservation did not come about due to any particular concern about the ecological health of this planet, though many consider that a nice side benefit; it was a close look at the simple economics, and the realization that in a time of increased energy costs, efficiency was a smart economic decision in a way that it wasn’t when we produced energy at a much higher EROEI. These are the sort of straightforward economic decisions that come with scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Those decisions can only dial back so much of the initial slack, though. Conservation is critical, but you can only tighten up your energy usage so much if you aren’t willing to change your behavior, and industrial attempts at energy-efficiency most commonly are looking at ways to save on energy use within the confines of maintained production levels. If your EROEI is steadily pushing downward with each passing year and each transition into more marginal sources of extraction, you likely will only be able to keep up with that EROEI via efficiency initiatives at best, and you may not even be able to do that. As it continues to push further downward and more energy is directed toward energy extraction and away from the broader economy, elements of that economy eventually are going to have to be shed.

In other words, the constant increase in extraction costs—which is a result of depletion—pushes our economy to become ever more efficient in response, running tighter and tighter margins, and removing the spare capacity that creates resiliency as a result. As it becomes more efficient and less resilient, it also becomes far more vulnerable to surprising shocks. That’s why the different in EROEI matters so much. Under tight margins, a loss of five billion barrels of productive oil is a big loss, even if you have another 22 billion barrels waiting. It likely means shedding some aspects of the economy that aren’t critical to energy and resource extraction. But it also means that you have less capacity with which to deal with unexpected or unaccounted-for costs.

That’s unfortunate, because each passing year seems to be bringing increased costs to our system that we have assiduously avoided budgeting for in an effort to pretend they don’t exist. But exist they do, and they are heaping a massive amount of strain onto a system that is already looking strained to the breaking point.

Where are these increasing costs? Well, they’re everywhere, flowing out of the compounding consequences of our brain dead ways of living. California’s years-long drought continues, and the costs of it can be seen mounting in various ways: food prices increasing due to decreased production; the costs of fighting forest fires soaring, as well as the cost of damages done by them; expensive water projects designed to deal with unforeseen shortages; the disruption of lives and jobs and investments from forest fire evacuations, from farm fields left fallow, from crops and orchards abandoned due to lack of water, from lost timber harvests, and so on; reduced hydroelectric output; reduced taxes; and on and on and on. A UC Davis study pegged the cost of the drought to California at $2.7 billion in 2015 alone. I suspect it would prove even more if you truly teased out all the whole system implications. And as the article notes at one point, farmers have proven partly resilient to the drought due to underground water supplies—in other words, due to spare capacity. Yet underground water is also subject to depletion and land in California is literally sinking (creating a whole host of other unexpected costs) due to heavy pumping of aquifers to make up for the lost above-ground flows. That noted resiliency, therefore, is being depleted as a response to other effects of depletion, and once it’s gone, the system as a whole will become immensely more vulnerable to new disruptions. Who reading this believes the worst of California’s drought is behind us? Who thinks the future decades won’t bring even greater challenges for that state? And how will they respond once they’ve removed the final remnants of resiliency from their system?

It’s of course not just California. The eastern portions of Washington and Oregon are burning each summer, as well. Hell, even the western portions are now catching fire. Last summer, the rainforests on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula burned. Louisiana just suffered a 1,000-year flood a few weeks after a city in Maryland suffered a 1,000-year flood event, which took place about two months after West Virginia suffered a 1,000-year flood event, which happened about two months after Houston suffered historic floods. History is always unfolding around us, but it seems to be unfolding at quite the historical pace these days. We are in trouble, folks. The consequences are piling up fast.

These climate disasters are coming more frequently as our climatic systems become ever stranger and more chaotic, thanks in large part to our continued abuse of the planet’s air, water, and soil. With the continuing and increasing disasters come continuing and increasing costs, piling onto an already shaky economy pulled drum tight by resource depletion and, in America’s case, a continuing decline in the share of the world’s wealth and resources we receive, marching in lockstep with the continuing decline of our imperial power and influence. These mounting costs are, ultimately, the costs of impudently doing business the way we’ve been doing it the last few hundred years, and are simply a matter of the many external costs of our industrial systems coming due in very big ways. For it’s not just our economic resiliency that we’ve been depleting over the years—it’s our ecological resiliency, too. As we’ve loaded up the climate and the world’s various ecosystems with the wastes, poisons, and destruction of our ways of living, the ability of those systems to handle our waste and destruction have been seriously depleted. If you dump a tiny amount of poison into a very large amount of water and then have a glass of it to drink, you may very well get by with no noticeable effects on your body. If you continue to dump that tiny amount of poison into it day after day—and if you then start increasing it day after day, as well—eventually drinking that water starts to sicken you. And if you continue the process and continuously dump more and more poison into the water you’re drinking, it will one day kill you. The water’s capacity to dilute the poison to a level that reduces its effect on you shrinks with each passing day until it no longer can take any more, and you can’t either.

We are reaching that point everywhere: in our seas, in our climate, in our soil, in our waterways. We are sickening and dying the same way that the species around us are, and our economy and ways of living our doing the same. We have relentlessly stripped the resiliency from every system around us in our never-ending intent to live far too out-sized lives—lives that don’t even bring us anywhere near as much joy as they bring us pain and destruction—and now as the ever-larger bills are coming due, we no longer have the spare income to pay them. As a result, we are facing the chaos of hard choices and extreme changes with little or no plan, clawed out of the debris of crumbling economic and political systems, and all while we remain largely unwilling even to admit to this reality, let alone tackle it head on.

And so let’s step back a moment and return to this post’s opening. What are we doing? Put in terms of my farming life, we are:

  • Spending more money each month to bring in the same amount of income. The corollary would be if I started out spending $20 in gas per month to get to my job bringing in $500 in income. That leaves me with $480 in income available for other aspects of my living. But if gas prices start rising, my available income starts dropping. In month two, gas costs me $30; now I only have $470 to spare. A few months later, it’s up to $50 and I’m down to $450. A year later it’s at $100 per month for gas and I’m panicking because $400 in spare income simply isn’t enough. I’m losing my financial resiliency, and fast.
  • While also suffering increased costs as our net income is dropping. Not only am I spending more for gas, but my car is starting to have more frequent mechanical problems as it ages, even while I can barely afford the regular upkeep. My car really needs that oil change, for instance, which I barely have enough money for. Then it starts making a funny sound and needs a $200 repair. That doesn’t sink me, but it’s tough, and it leaves me scrambling financially. Things are okay for a couple months and I’m just barely starting to catch up when a tire blows, and there’s another $125 bill. Again I’m scrambling, and I tighten my belt, cut out the final incidentals, and maybe miss a few meals to get by. I start to catch up again. But then my transmission goes out and I find out it’s going to cost $2,000 to get it rebuilt. I’m sunk. I can’t absorb this cost, and now I’m going to have to make some hard decisions and very possibly make dramatic changes to my life to get by, but I’m going to make those hard decisions and tough changes under duress, which is hardly the best way to make them.

This is the reality of compounding consequences taking their toll on an already-strained system lacking in resiliency. As these external costs keep piling up, they will continue to depress our economy and wreak havoc with our political system as people feel pushed ever closer to the edge—or, for many, already falling. And this is where our continued decline and contraction are virtually guaranteed. We are not confronting these problems head on and we are not creating or enacting any sort of plan to begin rebuilding resiliency in our system by reducing our out-sized lives. Instead, we’re ignoring the problems and hoping that we can find some magical way out, even as our ways of living are pushed to their breaking point.

The costs and consequences are not going away. They are only going to get worse, and as we respond to that by eliminating what little resiliency our system has left rather than reducing the expenses of our living so that we can maintain that precious resiliency, we’re setting ourselves up for even worse consequences down the road while ensuring that the mounting costs of business as usual continue to wreak havoc in our lives. At the end of the day, we won’t be able to avoid the consequences; we’ll only be left scrambling to respond to them under the weight of stress, chaos, and desperation; and that virtually ensures that many of the desperate decisions we make will be bad ones, creating greater chaos and pain than might otherwise be needed if we responded to our predicament with a clear-eyed honesty and intent starting now.


Addendum: If you haven’t already, please consider checking out my recent post on the Into the Ruins blog, “Mentioning the Unmentionable.” In it, I am soliciting letters to the editor for the third issue of Into the Ruins, centered around a very particular question related to the political outlook in America. Take a look and add your thoughts if you feel so inclined. Thanks!

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