“We used to make stuff in this country. Build stuff. Now, we just put our hands in the next guy’s pocket.” – David Simon, dialog from The Wire
I live on a farm. When I go “into town” I often pass by workers in fields. They are doing the essential everyday work needed to feed us, all of us, including me.
In my case, I could raise my own food, and in times past I have. But I don’t now–the work is too hard and I can buy even the best organically raised local food for so little money that I raise a little of what I eat, and buy the rest.
But recently I have been thinking about the changes coming with the diminishing availability of petroleum and the implications of this loss of this cheap, portable, dense energy source and raw material.
Energy is, after all, a substitute for human labor. Generally, all machines do is replace people in manipulating materials: handling, shaping, mixing, moving, heating, cooling, storing, etc.
To the extent that these things were done before cheap and abundant energy was available, human beings did it: slaves, peasants, indentured servants or simply hired hands. And, of course, women, who for most of history, at least in the Western tradition, have been essentially slaves to men
So where will the labor (energy) come from to keep us in iPads? Well, it probably won’t, because as we adjust to a future with less energy to substitute for human labor, we will shift our desires to more realistic levels.
We will return to making things that are repairable, and re-develop the network of people, places and supply lines so that these repairs can be done. We will each have less stuff, not so much because our desires for stuff will be unfulfilled, but because our desires will become more reasonable.
We will each learn to take more care, and will remember when we were happier with less stuff. Have you ever thought how strange it is that we have much bigger houses than we did even 50 years ago, yet there is a flourishing business renting storage space to people where they can put the stuff that doesn’t fit in their houses? We obviously don’t need the stuff, or it would be near to us, and being used.
And, most probably, each of us will simply spend more of our time doing things that are directly productive of real wealth: growing food, building furniture, raising children, nurturing community…
And to do that, we will need to recover the lost skills needed to practice true economics – the managing of our households: providing air, water, food, clothing, and shelter as well as rewarding companionship and meaningful occupation to ourselves, our families, our friends and our communities.
It will not be easy. It will be hard work, but there are those of us that still have the skills and experience to do it, and they can teach the rest of us.
And those workers in the fields are some of the most important of those teachers.
In the meantime, even though others sometimes laugh at me when I do, I always give a little wave of respect and appreciation when I see workers in a field.
What do you think?