De-Centralized Thinking

When I consider the litany of challenges facing us in the next 20+ years I see a few common threads.  Of course there is the growing realization that Fossil Fuel is at the root of many of our ills – from Global Warming to Globalization with all its economic and social issues.  But what is equally concerning to me is the paradigm shift that all that cheap energy has done to our thinking.  Since the rise of Coal and Oil, the mantra that “Bigger is Better” and sayings like “Economies of Scale” have become completely ingrained in our collective psyche.  Why produce your own energy, when it is so much more “efficient” to get it from a giant coal plant?  Why work in the town you live in when it is so much “cheaper” to commute 20 miles each way?  Why eat food in season if you don’t have to?  Hell, why would you even consider growing it yourself when it is so much less expensive to just go out and buy it?

As recently as 2 generations ago, these questions would have sounded as ludicrous as  I a truly believe they are …if we de-centralize our thinking.  Only the false accounting of this Global Era allow it to seem reasonable to buy salad greens trucked in from 2000 miles away or December strawberries from 7500.  While these actions are certainly awful from a Health of the Earth point of view, what I am most concerned with now is how our having lived with them for 50 years has damaged our thinking and thusly our ability to pull ourselves out of this mess.

My Grandfathers were farmers and entrepreneurs.  That is nothing special – the majority of men 80 years ago were still rural and living off the fruits of their minds and energies; they had to be innovative and efficient to survive.  Also, compared to us, they lived remarkably less cash dependent lives that were, by necessity, much more localized.  I want to be very clear that I am not some luddite revisionist pining for a complete reversion to some Glorious Past, there was also a litany of problems from discrimination and prejudice brought about by overly localizedand undereducated  lives,  to physical and health hardships that can now be avoided.  

Rather, I am focused on the loss of that feeling of self confidence that used to be such a trait of “being American”.  If my Grandfather (who fittingly also happens to be my namesake) encountered a problem on his farm, or in his business, he dealt with it: he made a new gate hinge, added a flat bed to his Ford truck, or grew enough oats to tide his horses through the winter.  When electricity arrived at the farm, he learned how to wire his house and barn and how to use electric pumps for the well.  Why?  He would have been dumb-founded that you even asked!  Why?  Because doing things yourself was how things got done.  For the majority of our history we failed or thrived due to our degree of Self Reliance.  

So much of our society – even some of those individuals that are coming to grips with the issues we are facing- has become accustomed to “them” providing for us.  Sure, we have big issues, but [insert one or more:] Technology, The Market, Industry, Innovation, or Obama will find a solution.  But look around your life right now.  Seriously – literally look around the room you are in and think for a bit.  How much food is in your home if the grocery store wasn’t there?  Right now I have about a week at most.  How much heat can your home produce on its own?  In January my Natural Gas heated home would be uninhabitable within 24 hours of the grid shutting off as the pipes would freeze and burst.  How would you make money without your commute intensive job?  I have taken large steps to augment that and can still only cover 20% of my gross annual expenses.   We are ALL in a pickle right now due to the Centralized Thinking that has permitted us to place so much of our lives into the hands of others.  

But that is what it is and continuing to dwell on it after you have come to grips with it isn’t really productive, and I write this blog to help myself and others become more productive.  So here is my point,  the solutions to the challenges we face will not be solved by Big, Centralized Solutions.  We cannot move blithely forward thinking that solar or hydrogen will allow the continuation of business as usual.  We will need to turn the “economies of scale” on their head – to begin to understand that there are definitely economies of scale – that smaller is better.  It is better for lots of people to make a little food; it is better for lots of homes to produce a little energy.  And it is certainly better for lots of people to take a stand to become a little more Self Reliant.  Nature thrives on redundancy -on having thousands of different organisms doing essentially the same thing.  We have erred greatly in not heading that lesson.

So maybe there are Big Solutions – and I believe in the depth of my soul that the true Big Solution is that enough people need to change their thinking to understand that smaller really is better.  Smaller brings accountability back into our lives, so that when we turn on our lights we have to live with the  repercussions of the energy it takes to light our lives and cannot live in blissful ignorance of the severed mountains of West Virginia because we had to grow and cut the willows to power our gasifier or pay one of our neighbors to do so.   Nor when we open the toy on Christmas morning can we avoid the living conditions of those who built it- because the toy factory is in the town down the river and Aunt Molly works there.  Smaller can also bring back other aspects of our lives.  Growing and preparing food with family is an amazing experience.  The confidence and pride earned  by child who spends their Sunday morning making the pancake batter herself, using strawberries that she picked in the yard the day before is so much greater than the child who sits and watches cartoons or goes to McDonald’s.  

When I was born, I was named after my grandfather.  When I grow up, I hope to become as capable as he was at providing an enduring legacy to his ancestors- his farm is still a bountiful “Land of Milk and Honey”.  I firmly believe that there are solutions to the challenges of our generation.  I also am convinced that if we do it right, we can fulfill the dream of all parent’s: that our children will live a better, more fulfilling life than we do.  One of the first steps to making that future a reality is in de-centralizing our thinking; believing that Small is Possible and that we –each of us!- has the power to Be the Change we wish to see in the world.  

Be the Change.


9 Responses

  1. The self-sufficiency you praise isn’t dead; nor is it (or ever was) really an “American” trait. It’s a product of necessity and will. My Mexican immigrant husband was as dumbfounded as your grandfather would have been to see how very little your average American knows how to do for himself. Everything from re-hanging a door to rewiring large parts of the house; basic auto mechanics, basic carpentry, plumbing, and all-around hard physical labor are just part and parcel of an ordinary life to him. Calling somebody to come do something you ought to be able to do yourself is shameful. (Not that this is totally a great attitude: if he can’t fix it, it just doesn’t get fixed.)
    As I become more self-sufficient little by little, and relearn skills my grandmothers – and even my mother – had, like canning and minor sewing projects, I have come to realize how very work-averse I was, how little labor -skilled or unskilled – I used to do. We Americans take a life nearly free from labor as a birthright; progress is measured in terms of “labor-saving” devices and of maximizing “leisure time.” Most people will equate doing more of their own work as a falling quality of life. How very wrong they are. There is not much in this world more satisfying and gratifying than surveying a job well done, by your own hands, even if it’s just a clean toilet, or a pot full of herbs.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Just to clarify, I never meant to imply that Self Reliance was an *exclusively* American trait. Many of the most interesting permaculture applications are being done in countries yet to become soft and jaded like the First World. The remark perhaps should read that Self Reliance used to be a trait we valued strongly as a culture. The remarks that you read in history books or century old papers about Americans seem to be describing virtues I have a hard to finding today in many of my peers in Suburbia.

    Necessity is the mother of invention. And the fear that I am relating is that in the decades where cheap energy has removed the necessity, we have lost some of the mental skills needed for innovation.


  3. Is your grandfather’s farm still in your family? How sad if not.

    I sit reading your blog after having spent the day on a sheep farm with friends who bought sheep as a valentine’s day gift for themselves — Cotswolds which are triple purpose: milk, meat, and fiber. I bought fleece since on 1/4 acre I really don’t have room for a sheep. My husband is in the back room playing WOW, and he insists he can’t build anything…because he messed up a shop project when he was 12. How do you explain to someone like that, who has training as a pilot/firefighter/paramedic/instructor, that thinking in 3D is a skill, and what he needs is PRACTICE building things. Self reliance is not his strong suit. He won’t even let me divert the water from our washing machine for grey water because he’s worried it will mess up the house. I worry terribly that as this moves deeper into a subsistence economy he won’t be able to transition.

  4. Hey Susan – good to hear from you again.

    Yes, the farm is run by my cousins and is within a plot of two of the land that my great,great, grandfather homesteaded prior to the civil war. There is about as much history in that land as can be found with any of us European types in this country. Grandpa had a mixed farm – everything from bees to rabbits to horses to pigs, but mostly dairy cows. Still has cows, but now its rotationally grazed beef. Those sheep sound fantastic.

    Building things is not for everyone – I was raised with a father who fixed things, and I am teaching my kids – boy and girl- to fix things. Both changed tires before they were 5. But I can’t fly a plane and first aid beyond “stop the bleeding” is out of my skill set. I can’t sew worth a damn and making art outside the garden is a mess. Like you said, I could likely learn these things, but there are only so many hours in the day. When we re-localize we will need all types. Teachers. Musicians. Peacemakers (lots of those!), Tailors. Nurses. I write about what I know – building and growing stuff. My wife’s blog is about cooking and rekindling ourselves with food and family. I will likely need her soft skills more than she needs my “practical” skills in renewable energy if we get to the Big Ugly. I think we have forgotten more about how to get along with each other than we have on how to mend fences.

    I certainly understand the concern of being further down the rabbit hole than people you care for. But there is more to making it through the funnel than gasifiers and greywater. I don’t know your husband, but I know that we all have to move through the “change curve” at our own pace… and that we will all bring a diverse skill set to the table. I wish you strength and luck. Stay in touch.


  5. Your blog is an inspiration. I’m just getting started on my path in life and your blog is helping fill my head with some great ideas and passion.

  6. ” That is nothing special – the majority of men 80 years ago were still rural and living off the fruits of their minds and energies; they had to be innovative and efficient to survive.”
    Maybe even the majority of the women?

  7. Thanks Andrew! Good luck on your journey.

    Point taken EJ, but as neither of my grandfathers were women I figured I stay “in gender”.

  8. Another outstanding musing Rob.

    decentralization and a diversity of approaches is the way nature handles challenges. It is not oil which has brought us to this precipice, but the reliance upon a single commodity. And a select few to process that commodity.

    A system of specialist consumers is inherently unstable. We cant have a competition between biofuel, solar, wind, tidal, geothermal where the winner takes all, or we will be back where we started. Sunny areas should be primarily solar powered, coastal areas use wind and tide. The the situation dictate the method. The problem is a matter of what we are dependent on, but that we are dependent. One size does not fit all.

    Occasionally it never hurts to reinvent the wheel.

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