The view from the half century
The economics of 2050 will be the reverse image of 1950, if we make it that far.
Every year, current and former residents of my ecovillage, The Farm, gather here in Summertown, Tennessee to meet and reminisce. We call the reunion our Ragweed Festival because it began as a celebration of the night 50 police cars, helicopters, ATVs, and canine units descended on a 5-acre melon patch we had planted along the county road that had become overgrown with neat rows of four-foot-tall ragweed.
The Assistant Attorney General, parked in a black limo outside our front gate all night, came in search of marijuana and went away sneezing. Eventually, the TV vans packed up their satellite uplinks and left for breakfast. The Nashville Banner ran a cartoon lampooning Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers’ Text Book that described to Junior G-men all over the world the sound a helicopter makes when landing on a watermelon, and in a separate panel, how to distinguish a watermelon from a pot leaf. “Know the difference!” the caption commanded.
As I bike the summer roads these days I see a lot of differences from when The Farm’s 320 tie-dyed pioneers arrived smelling of the patchouli of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. In 1972, many of our neighbors were earnestly dirt poor. Rusting automobiles littered most yards. The ridges of house roofs sagged toward their middles, tar paper flapping. Weathered outbuildings were poised to collapse in on themselves. Skinny cows, horses and dogs meandered aimlessly over bare dirt yards. The population of Lewis County, so named because it was where the great explorer and Governor of Upper Louisiana was assassinated traveling the Natchez Trace in 1806, had grown to 24,900 since Andrew Jackson removed the Muskogee, Creek and Choctaw to Oklahoma.
The population only grew another 1700 people, to 26,600, in these past 50 years, but you wouldn’t know it was the same place. Most buildings are either new or recently remodeled. The yards are tidy and well-mowed. The dogs are fat and the horses well-groomed. Cars and pickup trucks are late models and shiny, with a fair number of Teslas or hybrid Cadillacs and Lincoln SUVs. In 50 years, median household income grew from $12,000 to $60,000 (unadjusted dollars). While Lewis County is poorer per capita than Franklin or Nashville, the fish are jumping and the living is easy.
The other thing I notice is how strongly nature has regenerated in the care of us ecovillagers. When the first group arrived, the oak forest was still recovering from its third or fourth clear-cut. We planted pines to fill some of the forest’s holes and today those trees are so large it takes two people extending arms to reach around their bases. The climbing vines over deadfalls and the leafy waterfalls in parts of our land remind me of landscape paintings from the early part of the 19th century—vast, unspoiled wilderness; the forest primeval. Deer come up to my porch looking for handouts. Possums and squirrels climb trees to peer in my windows. Fox kits bay in reply to the hoot owls in the hollow.
Even within our ecovillage there is a layer of social discontent below the surface that shows itself in untempered social media outbursts, factionalism and mob behavior. We are not immune to the steady trickle of mental pollution osmosing from the popular culture. We have many new neighbors on our borders. For $20k down and a bank loan, anyone can buy 100 acres of mature forest with all-season freshwater springs and creeks. Since my return, I have visited several of these neighborhood doomsteads that did not exist when I left. Typically they are some miles up a dirt road, then a half-mile down a mossy driveway, and elegantly self-reliant in their design, with state-of-the-art solar power, woodstoves, rainwater capture, large, well-tended gardens, and internet. Not concerning to most USAnians but worrisome to me is the number of guns.
Weapons in the USA: 400 million + 40 million/yr
AR-15 assault rifles in private ownership: 20 million
Small arms in military armories: 10 million
Small arms in police departments: 1 million
In some ways, Lewis County reminds me of what I saw when I visited the former Soviet Union in the years immediately after the fall of communism. There was widespread poverty and dislocation but the system had inertia. Wealth had accumulated by various means over a very long time. That store of wealth, along with general camaraderie, took them through their rough patch until the Western-style economy got going. Nobody but the Russian mafia had guns.
Nurses and Teachers
After two years of vacillating pandemic shutdowns and virtual work, some industries are finding it difficult to re-hire on-site workers. In particular, nurses and teachers have come to understand that they were at a front line they had not been aware of before, and not given hazard pay. In Denmark, hospitals are starting to limit surgeries to emergencies, and not because of Covid. In the US schools have been forced back to virtual or hybrid classroom mode.
Last week I told my Patreon subscribers that:
The real inflation rate in the US is likely in the 12-15% range.
Groceries up 11.9% since June 2021, highest since 1979
Chicken up 17%, highest ever
Restaurants up 9%, highest ever
Fuel up 107%, highest ever
Electricity up 12%, highest since 2006
Rent up 5.2%, highest since 1987
Airfares up 37.8%, highest since 1980
Services up 5.7%, highest since 1990
These price increases show no sign of peaking, and some are at early exponential inception. Large firms are laying off a third of their workers, which will augur double-digit unemployment and federal aid demands by masses of the newly unemployed. Crashing stocks, bonds and crypto will take away fixed income assets for millions. Your savings are already worth 12-15% less than last year just from inflation. Social Security will not staunch the bleeding. The shock will have profound political implications that President Cheney may find insurmountable even with Keynesian stimuli or war on China.
Last week I looked at the gift economy as an alternative way to organize commerce. Our present rat race boils down to optimizing either production (as a means to consumption) or happiness (too often as a measure of consumption) per unit of time. Why? I think it makes more sense to optimize for total happiness and decouple from consumption/production.
Hanging over our economic malaise is a sword of climate chaos and the indifference of humanity to raise its shield. A 2020 Nature Communications paper entitled “Scientists’ warning on affluence” warned:
“Any transition towards sustainability can only be effective if far-reaching lifestyle changes complement technological advancements.”
The Behavior Barrier
Recent reports from the UN’s IPCC co-lab echo that conclusion. The world’s wise men suggested reframing the meaning of affluence. Instead of using metrics of consumption, they proposed switching to metrics of lives well lived. Instead of intensive resource use, they proposed “the achievement of well-being and quality of life” within the biosphere’s limits. What scale of behavioral shift does that imply? Vox reporter Jag Bhalla writes:
So when leaders like President Joe Biden say they’ll heed “the science” on climate change, that should mean urgently enacting deep cuts to emissions, not just by the US as a whole, but by the wealthiest Americans specifically. There is no other physically possible, science-consistent way to get to 1.5°C stabilization or even 2°C.
By most accounts, we are in a recession already and it will get a whole lot deeper. The latest UN report says we are heading for a world that is 3.2°C warmer, even with full implementation of the Paris climate agreement. There is no obvious way out. The Fed or central bank levers used in the past are not going to work this time. Meetings in Bonn this week—the 56th sessions of the UNFCCC’s Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) (referred to as SB56)—were meant to set the stage for an aggressive October COP27 meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh but broke up in a blame game and name-calling.
One can never really predict the future—at best we can only make an educated guess. Plague, famine, war, and climate change are the four colorful horsemen galloping in our direction. How do you imagine this will end?
Perhaps The Farm’s new prepper neighbors have it right.
Towns, villages and cities in the Ukraine are being bombed every day. As refugees pour out into the countryside, they must rest by day so they can travel by night. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. So far there are 62 sites in Ukraine and 265 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”
The Green Road also wants to address the ongoing food crisis at the local level by helping people grow their own food, and they are raising money to acquire farm machinery, seed, and to erect greenhouses. The opportunity, however, is larger than that. The majority of the migrants are children. This will be the first experience in ecovillage living for most. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those that do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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