This is the second part of an ongoing series of posts. You can read the first post here: “How to Save the World: The Problem”
Discovering a post-growth economy
Innovative communities, virtual networks
In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, many young people formed co-ops and communes. Experimentation was the key, but in the last forty years, we have largely lost this spirit of community innovation. One never hears of groups of citizens moving out into the woods to live experimentally. Those that do seldom report back on the condition of their grand experiments.
These are two of the first problems we must solve in moving forward: a lack of innovation and a lack of data. We need groups of forward-thinking citizens who are not only willing to experiment with the art of living sustainably, but who are also willing to share their data and experiences with the world. For instance, how much land would it require to feed a family of four in my hometown of Chugiak, Alaska? I have no idea, because no one has tried for 100 years. Even those who do try to live experimentally have no real way of sharing their experiences with a larger audience.
The first step in creating virtual networks and sharing data is to create centralized locations to share information. Call it Facebook for hippies. It would be a place where people could connect, experiment, and share their data and experiences. For instance, if I know a guy across town is experimenting with intensive broccoli production, I might see if I can grow winter squash here in Alaska. At the end of the summer, we could compare notes online with each other and a hundred other growers in the area. We would have a centralized place to get local data. This sharing of resources could easily go beyond gardening. Citizens could share information on home businesses, building projects, and animal husbandry. Furthermore, these virtual networks would spawn very real results: the creation of a shadow economy.
Shadow economies are small, local economies that exist outside of the larger regulated economy. For instance, the government strictly regulates all types of food products. If I make the best strawberry wine in the world, I cannot sell it without a permit and thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Likewise, if I grow happy and healthy chickens for meat, I cannot sell my chickens to anyone, though they are healthier and tastier that any mass-produced piece of poultry.
While the regulations restricting these types of sales may have been originally created with good intentions, the over-all effect is that a huge segment of our traditional economy is put out of reach of everyday citizens. If we cannot sell a loaf of bread or a bottle of wine out of our homes, we have fundamentally lost the ability to sustain ourselves with the work of our own hands.
Virtual networks would foster an economy that exists outside of our conventional structures. If I raise good chickens, and my neighbor is a mechanic, I can easily trade him some of my fresh chicken for his repair work. The government is none the wiser for the transaction, and we have both gained by using our own skills and knowledge. Economic opportunity has arisen where none existed before.
Shadow economies also provide citizens with the ability to rediscover lost trades and activities with a financial incentive. For instance, if I know that I can barter my delicious raspberry-currant mead for any number of goods and services in my community, I am more likely to perfect my mead-making process in order to have more mead to trade, and to ensure that my mead surpasses anyone else’s. However, because my transactions are technically illegal, I will not begin mass producing my mead with ingredients shipped from all over the world. My craft will remain local and small. There will be plenty of room for other mead-makers to thrive. Furthermore, as I perfect my process I will have discovered (or rediscovered) important knowledge about the art of fermentation that I can share with others. In this way, shadow economies not only allow for lost trades and lost lifestyles to be preserved, but also provide financial incentive to take up these trades.
The shadow economy is not limited to financial transactions. Entire entities, organizations, and unions can be created that exist outside the boundaries of regulated activities. Let’s say a group of neighbors decides they want to build a communal shed that houses communal tools and supplies. They build the shed straddling a property line, and designate the immediate area around the shed as communal land. They stock the shed with lawnmowers, saws, hammers, ladders, and the like. In doing so, each member has greatly benefited both socially and financially.
Working within the conventional economy, they would have to create a non-profit, co-op, or LLC. They would have to get permission from the zoning commission. They would have to find a lawyer to define the exact boundaries and definitions related to the word “communal property.” It would take months or years; such an entity would likely be impossible to “legally” create.
Outside of the conventional economy, such a system could be in place in a matter of days. By not officially titling themselves as a legal entity (and by not drawing attention to themselves) they would be able to create a loose association that would greatly benefit each of its members. In this way, then, a shadow economy would allow for experiments in innovative social structures and allow citizens to realize financial benefits that simply do not exist within the conventional economic system.
Shit hits the fan.
At some point, the “shit is going to hit the fan,” as they say. In other words, at some point down the line there will be massive global crises. Maybe oil will become prohibitively expensive. Maybe bankrupt countries will spur global economic collapse. Maybe we’ll run out of the “europium” we need to make our LCD TVs. Chances are, we’ll just wake up to the fact that we have too many people and too few resources. However it comes about, we will face seemingly insurmountable global crises in the future.
When the whole world fears doom and collapse, when politicians and policy makers cannot find a solution, and when the world has lost faith in the institutions of our time, the stewards of these virtual networks, this data, these lost trades, and these shadow economies will step forward. They will explain that the world can no longer support “growth economies”. They will assert, in clear and simple language, that the world must change drastically. Most importantly, they will share with the rest of the world the data they have collected. They will explain that they have been experimenting with post-growth economy for decades. And they will offer solutions and hope in a troubled and desperate time. And after decades of quiet, subversive, and tireless work, the world will listen.
More to come soon…