Monday, March 2, 2009

The New Subsistence Society

Sometimes its a good idea to stand back and contemplate the universe.  Today's early news that the Dow Jones Industrial Index took another header because of AIG's $60+ billion loss prompts me to do that. 
Dow_3209
What is the vector of our society?  What will it look like after all the dust has settled?  It is not just the financial crisis that prompts me to contemplate this.  Although the phrase is over-used, we are in the midst of a perfect storm -- a global economy that creates and distributes goods and services through the internet, computerized machines and cheap labor virtual collapse of the financial system, the advent of peak oil, and the climate crisis.  How will all of these things cumulatively affect our future?

We've lived with the first problem for decades now -- what do people do as they  become less and less important to production of goods and services.  The science fiction of our times: what happens when people and their primary asset, labor, becomes virtually superfluous.  Certainly countries with high labor costs relative to Asia and South America already are beginning to experience the problem.  Computerized machines can plant, water, and harvest the fields; robots can make the cars and prefabricated housing; department stores, bank branches, car dealers, even retail grocery stores can be replaced by internet marketing; 100 law professors lecturing to law students and 1000 college professors lecturing to college students is more than enough -- creating the prospect of a British or continental education system, with those professors raised to unseemly heights and the remainder left to do the grunge work of tutors; even more radically, 100 K-12 teachers can teach a nation of students with computer graded exams, if we believe that convergent answers are the goal of education; priests and ministers can be replaced by TV showmen and megachurch performers. 

So what do the other 6.95 billion of us do?  Now, we consume.  Voraciously.  If we don't, then the basics can be provided by a very few and the rest of us become unwanted baggage.  A non-consumer is a drag on the system.  We depend on the velocity of money, excess consumption, and inefficiency to provide each of us with a job and to maintain the current economy.

And what happens when money moves at a crawl, when people stop consuming, when production becomes life-threatening to the planet, and when a key resource for production, oil, reaches the point of no return???  The answer is a new subsistence economy.  A new world where a few are need to produce, a few more can consume, and the remainder have no economic role and are left to subsist as best they can.

Admittedly, it will be subsistence at a higher level -- through the internet, computerization, and technology, each of us will have the capacity to do things for ourselves that are beyond the imagination of today's impoverished subsistence farmers.  But, relative to those who own all of the means of production, a few entertainers (be they basketball players, lecturers, moviestars, or mega-church leaders), and a few laborers (building the machines, computers, the information infrastructure and doing basic and applied research), we will all be poor.  Perhaps only relatively and perhaps only in material terms.  But poor, living at a subsistence level, consuming food from our own gardens, building our own houses, wearing clothes for function not fashion, educating our own children through the internet, capturing essential power through distributed energy, and buying very little of goods that are bound to be too expensive for most -- probably just computers.  It won't necessarily be bad.  Perhaps we can refocus on relationships, family, community, art, music, literature, and life, rather than define ourselves in terms of our job and our things.  Perhaps we can refocus on spirituality instead of materialism. Who knows?  Maybe the new society won't be such a bad thing after all -- at least if we insist that the few who have the privilege of production have a responsibility to share the wealth with the many.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/environmental_law/2009/03/the-new-subsist.html

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