Monday, September 21, 2009

The Diagonal Economy 3: Growth and Sustainability

I’ve written before about the Problem of Growth.  There, I suggested that our current civilization is structurally unsustainable because an excess of hierarchy requires that it seek perpetual growth.  There, I argued that we must build a non-hierarchal and locally self-sufficient alternative structure that I call Rhizome to replace our current economic and political structure if we are ever to achieve actual sustainability.  Of course, I’ve always recognized that Rhizome is not a practicable mass-transition strategy—it could exist at the peripheries, perhaps even creating a valuable symbiosis with “primary” society, but it’s plainly not realistic to suggest that we just abandon “hierarchy” and adopt “Rhizome.” 

Some readers may have wondered by now about the similarities and differences between the Diagonal Economy and Rhizome—are they the same, am I abandoning my previous theory and replacing it with a new one, etc.?  While there is some overlap, the simplest answer is that the Diagonal Economy and Rhizome are two separate concepts intended for two separate purposes. 

Rhizome was always intended as a theoretical counterposition to hierarchy—its purpose was to explore the problems with our current system by imagining its opposite and attempting to frame it in a way that would be viable.  But it is, in the end, a theoretical model.  I think it can provide useful guidance for people in the unusual position of building something from the ground up—usually very small or remote situations—and while I think it provides much practical guidance in design (as it influenced my development of the Diagonal Economy), it provides little guidance about implementation or transition amidst real-world challenges and constraints.

The Diagonal Economy was created with the express purpose of filling that gap left by Rhizome theory.  I’m less interested in articulating a pristine model for non-hierarchal and sustainable organization than I am in articulating a set of trends and principles that we can all use, at all levels, to guide the continuing evolution and emergence of human civilization.  The Diagonal Economy is expressly intended to adapt the theory developed as “Rhizome” to provide answers and guidance to the challenges that I predict we will face in the coming century.  As such (and as suggested by the title of this post), the Diagonal Economy is intended as a set of guidelines for growing a truly sustainable civilization—specifically, one that has a scale-free absence of the need to grow—within and only eventually replacing the Legacy economic and political structures.

I won’t repeat the argument that I’ve made at length before, but the Problem of Growth is at the core of our civilization’s problems.  Many people suggest that overpopulation is the core problem, but this, too, is but a symptom of our structural problem of growth.  While I think the Diagonal Economy provides many other advantages as a model for transition, most of these are ultimately subsumed under its ability to address the Problem of Growth.  Again, while details of this approach are discussed in the linked articles (and will be covered in more depth later), the keys to addressing the Problem of Growth are scale-free self-sufficiency, non-hierarchal political, economic, and social structures, and an ethic and aesthetic of elegant simplicity.  As I will explain in coming posts, these qualities can be infused into our current structure gradually, rather than attempting some kind of revolution of direct confrontation and sudden replacement.  And this can be done at all levels—not only does it not require action by “others,” but it also does not offer the excuse that we’re waiting on “them.”

In this sense, by attempting to provide a realistic and implementable approach to addressing our civilization’s structural Problem of Growth, the Diagonal Economy may be the only “program” that offers any real hope of achieving true sustainability, not just greenwashing or empty victories.

5 comments:

Kevin Carson said...

Re the transition, and also relevant to your disagreement with Robb over the viability of Factor E Farm, you might be interested in the recent launch of the 100kGarages project. IMO 100kGarages and Factor E Farm may be pursuing complementary strategies for transition, approaching a converging point from opposite extremes.

100kGarages is a joint effort of ShopBot and Ponoko, aimed at creating a nationwide network of open-source designers and small shops with cheap digitally-controlled machinery, with the goal of relocalizing the economy. They're starting out with several dozen owners of ShopBot CNC routers, and Ponoko's library of digitial designs, and planning to expand the network first to include several hundred ShopBot owners and then eventually thousands of owners of other non-ShopBot, homebrew CNC tools of all kinds.

If you combine that with the open-source design ecology being developed at Factor E Farm, aimed specifically at bootstrapping technologies for maximizing local resilience and economic autonomy, you've really got something. Imagine if all the stuff like the LifeTrak combination tractor/prime mover, the Sawmill, the CEB press, steam engine, etc., were added to the library of designs that could be produced via the 100kGarages project--and if every population center of a few tens of thousands of people had one or more small shops with CNC multi-machines, routers, cutting tables, RepRaps, etc.

I think relocalized, networked manufacturing at the garage and desktop level is somewhere analogous to where the desktop computer revolution was after Apple II and the first Computer Faire, and approaching the BBS stage. When somebody develops a machine tool version of the Mac, things will take off.

Jeff Vail said...

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for sending this--I had actually just added the 100k garages (from P2P Foundation, I think) to my running notes--here, for discussion in the "Nation of Entrepreneurs" section.

I am actually very optimistic about the potential for distributed manufacturing--and I think that elements of both Factor E Farm and 100K garages will be very valuable. I also like the explicit use of "garage," as I think suburban garages will be exactly where this revolution really picks up steam (even though it might start in more urban workshops).

I think that the CNC and hand-lathe operations will be able to fabricate many of our future needs--I worry, though, about continuing dependencies on advanced/scarce/expensive materials. I wonder what kind of distributed lumber mills or metallurgy shops, for example, we'll be able to produce. I think one of two things need to happen to make this movement really take hold (both could happen simultaneously): 1) the distributed manufacture expressly incorporates the use of locally/vernacular primary materials, and/or 2) we develop the ability to produce, or at least repurpose, advanced materials (metals, ceramics, plastics, even milled wood products) as a component of the local manufacturing capability.

I'd also like to see a shift in focus away from replicating consumer trinkets to producing things like solar water heaters, pumps, inverters, and even getting into seed-saving and some of the other forms of IP/manufacture that don't fit quite so cleanly into the current 100k Garages concept... all that said, I think much of this focus will have to wait until there's a real need. I guess there's a bit like people wondering why anyone would need more than 64k of RAM, and suddenly the need appeared...

ryan said...

"I’ve always recognized that Rhizome is not a practicable mass-transition strategy—it could exist at the peripheries, perhaps even creating a valuable symbiosis with “primary” society, but it’s plainly not realistic to suggest that we just abandon “hierarchy” and adopt “Rhizome".

I think it depends on who you suggest it to, and when. Perhaps it is not practicable as a mass-transition strategy this very instant (or in certain levels of certain sects of society), but as the compounding failures of industrial civilization become more and more evident it will be clear that decentralized, non-hierarchical alternatives are adaptive and preferable. it all depends on how we perceive the nature and severity of the threats before us. a society is flexible to change when driven to desperation by lack of basic needs and unrest, but also by the collective consciousness - that is, the culturally-reinforced mental perception of the world, the self, others, and the future. so if we seek to spread rhizome or similar social organizational models, a key component of this transition will be understanding and applying conscious evolution and perception. while that sounds like heady, dislocated stuff, it can be as simple as surveying social groups/communities and directing energy towards the sections which appear most receptive to this change. very many of the environmentalists, anarchists, and anti-civ crowds are desperate for changes that can be applied right now which counter hierarchy and growth-generating economies... heck, any of the huge amounts of people suffering the oppression of hierarchical governance would most likely welcome these changes.

rhizome/RCs/networks have their target audiences, and the internet allows for the possibility of viral spread - especially as the shit and fan become more intimately acquainted.

keep up the great writing!

Kevin Carson said...

Jeff: IMO most of your stipulations will result automatically from market price incentives. As subsidies to transportation and material inputs evaporate, and the model of "growth" based on extensive addition of inputs becomes untenable, it seems likely the resulting price changes will exert strong pressure toward locally available, sustainable and vernacular materials. And similar material pressures, coupled with the unenforceability of patents as a legal support to planned obsolescence, and with the end of mass production's pressure toward planned obsolescence as a way of maximizing capacity utilization, will lead to modular design and interoperability.

The analogy of nobody needing more than 64k of RAM is spot on. A lot of this stuff is only now becoming competitive because, when the whole market price structure is based on artificially cheap inputs and cheap distribution costs, localism and sustainability are expensive luxury goods--a yuppie lifestyle choice that cuts across the grain of economic incentives. But when fuel is $12 a gallon, most of the trucking fleet is abandoned at the roadside, and Whirlpool's supply chain dries up, people will of necessity look toward the nearest machine shop with cheap CNC tools for the replacement parts they need to keep appliances running.

Re the mass shift from hierarchy to rhizome, I expect rhizome first to spring up in the interstices of hierarchical society, and then for hierarchy to abandon increasing blocks of territory to rhizome, retreating into shrinking enclaves.

I recommend Andy Robinson's astute discussion on the p2p list. He argues that, in the intermediate stage, the shrinking and hollowed out hierarchies will try to coopt networks, but this will become increasingly untenable:
http://listcultures.org/pipermail/p2presearch_listcultures.org/2009-May/003079.html

"I think part of the crisis of the 70s has to do with networks and hierarchies. The "old" system was highly hierarchical, but was suffering problems from certain kinds of structural weaknesses in relation to networks—the American defeat in Vietnam being especially important.... And ever since the 70s the system has been trying to find hybrids of network and hierarchy which will harness and capture the power of networks without leading to "chaos" or system-breakdown. We see this across a range of fields: just-in-time production, outsourcing and downsizing, use of local subsidiaries, contracting-out, Revolution in Military Affairs, full spectrum dominance, indirect rule through multinational agencies, the Nixon Doctrine, joined-up governance, the growing importance of groups such as the G8 and G20, business networks, lifelong learning, global cities, and of course the development of new technologies such as the Internet....

"In the medium term, the loss of power to networks is probably irreversible, and capital and the state will either go down fighting or create more-or-less stable intermediary forms which allow them to persist for a time. We are already seeing the beginnings of the latter, but the former is more predominant. The way I see the crisis deepening is that large areas will drift outside state and capitalist control, integrated marginally or not at all (this is already happening at sites such as Afghanistan, NWFP, the Andes, Somalia, etc., and in a local way in shanty-towns and autonomous centres). I also expect the deterritorialised areas to spread, as a result of the concentration of resources in global cities, the ecological effects of extraction, the neoliberal closing of mediations which formerly integrated, and the growing stratum of people excluded either because of the small number of jobs available or the growing set of requirements for conformity. Eventually these marginal spaces will become sites of a proliferation of new forms of living, and a pole of attraction compared to the homogeneous, commandist, coercive core."

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