Fix the Scale: Closer to home
The book’s final chapter (final, that is, but for a short Epilogue) deals with the sheer scale of human activity on the planet, and the need to renew and re-invigorate communities everywhere. For our purposes here, it is also a proper time to review the whole reform scheme, and to deliver a (shortish) To Do list.
But first, one thing that will help to decentralized economies (and in that way help communities) is to once again plant manufacturing in those small places it originally developed. In this, we will be greatly helped by something that only a few years ago would have been fantasy …
Three dimensional printing
3D printers have been in use for more than a decade, mostly, it is true, to produce prototypes that were then scaled up in a conventional factory. But that’s already changing. Artifacts as diverse as clocks, a rather un-Stradivarius like violin, car parts and clothing have already been tested successfully for local “printing” (rather dully called “additive manufacturing” by its proponents). There is no technical reason why much more complex items can’t be made the same way, up to and including cars and aircraft.
All of which sheds a new light on localization. Factories no longer have to be huge. The advantages of scaling up are falling away – in fact, mass scale manufacturing precludes one of the more interesting aspects of 3D printing – since it is driven by software, products can be easily changed – welcome to the world of mass customization.
All of which means it will no longer make sense for a manufacturer to order something from China for shipping home – why not make it locally instead? Make one – if it sells, make some more. Instant entrepreneurs. All you need is the idea.
But don’t look at it as a nail in the coffin of globalization. Think of it as a boon to localization instead. (From The Economist, Feb 12. 2011.)
“Localization”, the chapter argues, is necessary and inevitable. But it is not a
It’s true that some versions of localization are driven more by funk than favor.
The global headquarters of one such version is in the quaint (there really is no other word for it) south Devon town of Totnes – the town’s own website calls it “a charming Devon town with a bustling main street and a regular market”, but Totnes is much more quaint than that. Down near the river, for instance, is a small stone that is said to mark the spot where Brutus, “a Trojan prince” had stood to found Totnes and then, as an afterthought, Britain itself. Totnes was already a big deal in the Domesday Book, and a flourishing timber town in Elizabethan times, and in gratitude the townsfolk hold their market each Tuesday morning dressed in full Elizabethan regalia. Unsurprisingly, the town is hospitable to what used to be called “alternative lifestyles”, and the “bustling main street” contains many a shop selling crystals, queer-smelling soaps, hand-made shoes and herbal teas. Just up the road is Dartington Hall, where an odd couple named Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst founded a community based on “progressive principles”, aimed at stopping the depopulation of rural Britain. Into this receptive community a young Irishman, Rob Hopkins, hitherto mostly a prophet of permaculture, moved in 2005, setting up his office above a shop, to found the Transition Culture movement, and the Transition Network.
The Network’s mission is simple: to help communities prepare for the coming oil shock, when rapidly rising prices destroy the world economy, by promoting local resilience, “powering down” to a non-oil economy, and what Hopkins calls “reskilling” – teaching people how to survive, using their own and their communities skills. His message has some resonance. By late 2009, more than 150 communities in a dozen countries, from Chile to Japan, had signed up to become “Transition Towns”, 24 of them in the United States, and 700 others were considering joining. (“Towns” signing up is a little misleading. Little Sandstone, Idaho, has indeed involved many or even most of its citizens – it was famously described in a New York Times magazine article in April 2009 under the title “The End is Near! (Yay!)” – but in some, Los Angeles for example, the Transition Town is pretty invisible, and involves no more than a handful of people, none of them making movies.)
Hopkins himself is pretty measured about the need. “I think we are certainly within 10 years of the oil peak. Some argue it’s already happened. So we need to start thinking seriously about how we adapt. Our starting point is to help communities design a vision of where they see themselves in 20 or 30 years, in a lower energy context. The idea is to make communities resilient enough to withstand external shocks, be it food and materials shortage or economic mayhem. The only way to do this is to produce as many things as possible locally, without relying on oil. Oil-reliant products are generally manufactured on an industrial scale and shipped great distances. Post-oil building materials, in contrast, could include mud, straw, wood, cob, hemp and lime, grown, mined or processed by local people.” So far, it is fair to say, this transition has been pretty modest in Totnes itself – a few nut groves planted, and a local currency, the Totnes Pound, already in use, and ready for when the other pound, the stirling one, has longer has any value.
Still, the transition idea, and the Transition Handbook Hopkins has written, is a coherent way to manage the chaos when it happens, and gives people a clear structure to follow. As Jon Mooallem puts it, ”… along with Transition’s emphasis on hopefulness over fear, this rigorous playbook seems to set it apart from earlier grass-roots crusades. It is, Transition leaders say, what they hope will allow the movement to bring in the people that conventional activists have failed to reach and, just as important, keep everyone focused through the messiness and disillusionment every community-organizing effort encounters and many do not survive.”
Permaculture, as Hopkins points out whenever he can, is itself a life based on creating sustainable human habitations in cooperation with nature. Transition Towns are a way to get there before the stresses of the coming collapse tear things irrevocably apart. The apocalypse doesn’t scare him. “Our starting point is that it’s a tremendous opportunity rather than a crisis,” he says. “Implicit within it is the potential for the greatest social and economic renaissance we’ve ever seen.” (This in an interview with Builder magazine, England.) He is scornful of the idea of sustainability, which is, as he points out, merely about “reducing the impacts of what comes out of the tailpipe of industrial society.” In his view, it is industrial society itself that is imperiled; and so Transition is about constructing new ways of thinking, working and building to make communities resilient to whatever comes. (This from a New York Times Magazine piece by Jon Mooallem.)
In this, Transition has deep roots in earlier Utopian communities – not just the Dartingtons, but any of the dozens that sprang up in rural Europe and nineteenth century America, like Owen’s in Scotland and then America, Findhorn in modern Scotland, Brook Farm and Fruitlands in New England, and the “phalanxes” promoted by Arthur Brisbane in 19th century America (a phalanx was a community consisting of precisely 1620 people, small enough to allow residents to develop their talents and inclination free from the pernicious influence of capitalist society, particularly what Brisbane called its wage slavery. These phalanxes were based on the work of Charles Fourier, a French utopian scholar who is, incidentally, credited with coining the word feminism.) In essence, stripped of its more dire pronouncements about the imminence of collapse, Hopkins’s vision is not very different from the one suggested in this book – that despite (or because of) the converging crises of peak oil and climate chaos, we really can achieve a post-carbon life of livable communities, local food and manufacturing and decentralized energy generation, in a system that lives within its budget of natural capital. But his view, and the view of his followers, is harsher than this. It envisages complete economic collapse. Governments will fall, national boundaries will be altered, wars and hordes of desperate refugees will follow. City life, and especially suburban life, all of it based on cheap oil, will become impossible. Population numbers will implode. Makes it hard to see through to the hoped-for social and economic renaissance.
And finally, a how to fix everything to-do list