Jul 222016
 
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Dorothea Lange ‘OK Family bound for Kingfisher and Lubbock. We’ll be in California yet’ 1938

Basic income is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, and while I won’t get anywhere near a comprehensive overview -there are too many uncertainties and untested ideas-, I’m going to try to paint a first chapter in a work of progress. Or, a thought experiment, for me and others.

Of course I’ve read a lot of and about other people’s ideas on the topic, and I’m sure there are many more out there that I haven’t seen yet, but I’m afraid to say that about all of those I did read tend to fall into the same ‘trap’. That is, they project their ideas, which are widely varying, onto -or close to- the economy (economies) and society (societies) as they are today.

Their basic income examples and ideas and theories (as well as criticisms of them) are all built around a perception of the economy as it is, or better still as it once was. And that is probably a bad idea. Because the economy of the future will not be like it is today, or was yesterday, and neither will societies.

And that is not because of the role automation and/or robots will play, a topic that features prominently in many basic income writings; those things are but a minor distraction. What will change our world much more profoundly will be the inevitable demise of the economic system as we know it.

And it’s against that backdrop that the issue of basic income must be viewed. If only because it then becomes something entirely different.

 

 

I started thinking a while back that it would not be robots or inequality that would be the foundation of and driving force behind basic income, but the ruin of our pension systems. Of course one has to be careful with general statements on this, because there are so many different systems and approaches when it comes to pensions and other old-age ‘provisions’ and/or ‘benefits’.

What all have in common today, though, is that they’re woefully underfunded and sliding down further fast due to ultralow interest rates and other ‘policies’, as well as to ageing societies. It seems almost incredulous that until a few years ago most pensions funds were required by law to invest only in AAA-rated assets.

While they may not all suffer from the same afflictions, all these systems, from Social Security to private pension funds, do suffer from the same symptoms. Painting the picture with a broad stroke, it’s safe to say they’re all in essence Ponzi schemes.

While many of the ‘Social Security variety’ depend on the trust in a government to pay out something for which nothing -or very little- has been set aside, those of the variety in which money IS actually paid in are inflicted by the twin impairments of too little return on what is paid in to maintain the fund, and too few newcomers to pay for what ‘oldtimers’ never paid but do want to take out.

A third ‘impairment’ will occur when younger workers figure out they’re paying into something they will never see any benefits of, and refuse to fork over any longer.

Low interest rates and ageing populations are wreaking havoc on -especially- European and Japanese pensions even as we speak, and a brief look at future trendlines makes abundantly clear where things are going.

Pondering all that, it seems obvious that at some point a government with at least a bit of vision would come to the conclusion that a basic income to replace all the faltering old-age provisions schemes -and many others- might make a lot of sense. If only because, once you think about it, ‘free’ money only for older people does not make sense, neither politically nor economically.

 

 

But let’s take a step back; that last bit still doesn’t take sufficiently into account that our economies are about to undergo radical changes because they are collapsing. What I find interesting is that this collapse actually seems to play into the hands of a basic income. For several reasons, as a matter of fact.

I am convinced that a basic income in an economy that’s part of a centralized, even globalized, system, makes no sense. You can’t really have a basic income in a society that imports most of what it uses, but that still is the model of most of our societies. We import much of what’s essential, and export non-essential things.

That is a problem that will more or less solve itself, though we better pay attention and be prepared, or else. We may not know exactly when or how the economic collapse will occur, but that’s not the most important thing. What is, is that centralization can only happen in a growing economy. As soon as growth halts -or even reverses-, economies will of necessity decentralize. Unless perhaps they’re under a dictatorship, but even then.

Setting up a basic income system in a society that, for example, imports its clothes and furniture -and sometimes even food- from China, is a doomed proposition. The number one requirement for a successful basic income is that the money issued stays inside the society it’s being issued in. If not, it would merely speed up bankruptcy.

The money must be spent locally, on local products, as much as possible, because then it will be worth much more to the local economy. This will also go far towards fighting deflation, because the velocity of money will increase. To ensure that as much as possible is spent inside a community/society, the manufacturing base will need to be (re-)built.

Which must happen anyway as the global economy sinks, and the sooner, the better. The worldwide transport lines we know today will not exist for much longer, and it will take time to adapt one’s economy to that.

On the bright side, this decentralization, or relocalization, or ‘protectionism’ if you will, will (re-)create a lot of jobs. Not ones that will pay as much as what we see now, but that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. And besides, it’s not as if we have some kind of free choice. Reality will dictate the terms. We must produce our own essentials once again: food, clothing, housing, furniture etc.

Still on the bright side, the new jobs will make basic income much less costly for a society. Because you can top off what people make on top on whatever the basic income is, and you can do so at a level that everyone can agree to.

 

 

That’s my first take of basic income in a crisis, a crisis I see as set in stone. Which changes the whole issue of a basic income. Plenty people will see this as socialism or something in that vein, I see it as perhaps the only way to make sure you have a functioning society on the way down. With none of the alternatives looking particularly appealing.

When discussing the details of such a program, what would probably be good, if only for the sake of justice, is to combine it with Steve Keen’s notion of a Modern Debt Jubilee, in which debt gets cancelled but those with most debt are obliged to pay -part of it- down, while those who are debt-free get ‘rewarded’ for that status.

What I have always found difficult to envision is how a jubilee would work in modern days. The ones ‘of old’ would typically involve a local ruler and/or landlord to whom subjects owed debts of some sort, which the ruler could declare null and void while still being the ruler- and the richest man around.

Today debts are global, with much of them having been securitized and sold on to large -financial- institutions who may even be anonymous and have shareholders in dozens of different countries. How do you get them to agree to large-scale debt cancellation or reform? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s not the same thing.

The hardest part of what I laid out above may well be to get people who feel they are owed benefits, pensions or otherwise, to accept that these will be incorporated into a new basic income system. Not many understand to what extent pensions systems are Ponzi’s, and even those who do to an extent may still refuse to give up their slice of the pie.

It should be fairly easy, though, to explain what their slice will look like once the systems collapse, or even simply once nobody pays in anymore. And because younger people have no reason to pay for something they know they will never see the benefits of, and moreover all this can be phased in/out over a certain period of time, it may well unfold faster and easier than one might think at first sight.

 

 

Lastly, some numbers. Greg Ip wrote for the Wall Street Journal last week: Revival of Universal Basic Income Proposal Ignores Needs of Labor Force. Obviously, in my example, i.e. in an economy that’s going down the drain, the term ‘needs of the labor force’ takes on a whole different role and meaning. In his piece, Ip says:

To send every American adult $10,000 a year would cost $2.4 trillion, or 13% of GDP.

And I think that is a misleading way of phrasing things. Because the money doesn’t disappear, so it doesn’t ‘cost’ that; and that’s not only true in my theoretical example. Most of the ‘basic income money’ would circulate inside the economy, and much comes back to the issuing state through various taxes. Crux is don’t let it leave the economy it’s issued in.

Mind you, I don’t see a basic income trial happen in the US, because it’s far too big a country. The EU is too large too. You’d need smaller units. And as I said, a shrinking economy would of necessity make units smaller. In Europe, these units already exist. In countries the size of Finland, Switzerland, Scotland, Wales, perhaps Greece, a basic income trial may well be viable.

That is, provided they shrug off the strangleholds that bind them to centralized systems. But that they will wind up doing regardless. What’s more important is that such a trial is meticulously planned, and not with some pie in the sky idea of where the world economy is headed.

Greg Ip suggests that a $10,000 basic income for all US adults is not realistic, because it would ‘cost’ 13% of GDP. But this graph from the World Economic Forum World Economic Forum on social expenditures as calculated by the OECD, puts things in a different light:

 

In 2014, US social expenditures were at about 20% of GDP, which is 50% more than Ip’s example. And that is the main point behind the basic income question, even if you don’t subscribe to the collapsing economy ‘thesis’: what would happen if you replace all -or almost all- social benefit schemes in a particular society with a basic income? How much money would you save, or how much extra would it cost?

Ip seems to contend that a basic income would be prohibitively expensive. But, even if the OECD numbers fail to include certain items, there’s a lot of leeway between the 13% of GDP a US basic income would cost, and the 20% of GDP America now pays in benefits. About $1.2 trillion in leeway. So the cost picture at the very least is not all that obvious.

By the way, it’s kind of funny that I’ve seen nobody address the perhaps most ironic thing: even if the state would save a lot of money moving to the much simpler basic income from a myriad of other programs, that would make a whole lot of civil servants unemployed all at once. Can’t help wondering why no-one brings that up.

But the US is not the best example, for various reasons. It’s countries that have the right size to hold a trial in, or at least what we can perceive as the right size. Finland, Belgium, Denmark all spend close to 30% of GDP on social expenditures. Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Luxembourg are at 25%. If a basic income can be had for 13% of GDP, these countries stand to save a fortune…

Unfortunately, you can’t be in the EU and start a basic income trial. And that’s a shame. Because it’s going to be very hard to get this right, and it’ll take some serious time and effort. So much so that not starting today is a risk in itself.

But as long as people keep having faith in the economists, politicians, bankers and reporters who drill the ‘recovery is right around the corner’ meme into them 24/7, and any alternative to that meme just scares the heebees out of them, I’m afraid there’ll be no basic income trial. Yes, there are a few ideas, but they’re all based on the wrong -growth- assumptions, so they’re sure to fail.

Caveat: No, I haven’t gone through all different social benefits plans of all countries I’ve mentioned, so I don’t know what part of GDP each spends at present, or how much they could save or lose. Someone will have to write ‘the book’ on this.

For my thought experiment here I found it sufficient to go with the basic principles, and throw in a few numbers. And the most elementary difference between me and other voices is not there anyway: that is in my putting the basic income issue against the backdrop of economic collapse, and nobody else really doing that whom I’ve read.

Yes, the title is Marquez, of course, THE time of cholera

 

 

Jun 062016
 
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Jordan Osmond and Samuel Alexander Image from ‘A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity’ 2016

On July 27 2015, I posted a 2-hour interview with Nicole Foss that was recorded when we were in Melbourne in April that year. The interview -though not the full two hours of course- was always meant to be part of a documentary by our friends Jordan Osmond and Samuel Alexander. The documentary is now out.

Below, you can find the trailer, the full documentary, as well as a re-run of the full interview with Nicole. I haven’t had time to watch the documentary, just got the mail from Sam, but I will later today. No doubt, it’ll be worth your while and mine. I remember complimenting them on the sound- and picture quality of the interview last year. Plus, get the likes of our dear friend Dave Holmgren together with Nicole and Ted Trainer, amongst others, and you can’t very well go wrong, can you?

(NOTE: Saw some rushes, and it may contain a tad much hippieness and/or reality-TV semblance for some)

The trailer:

With the text published with it:

The overlapping economic, environmental, and cultural crises of our times can seem overwhelming, can seem like challenges so great and urgent that they have no solutions. But rather than sticking our heads in the sand or falling into despair, we should respond with defiant positivity and try to turn the crises we face into opportunities for civilisational renewal.

During the year of 2015 a small community formed on an emerging ecovillage in Gippsland, Australia, and challenged themselves to explore a radically ‘simpler way’ of life based on material sufficiency, frugality, permaculture, alternative technology and local economy. This documentary by Jordan Osmond and Samuel Alexander tells the story of this community’s living experiment, in the hope of sparking a broader conversation about the challenges and opportunities of living in an age of limits.

The documentary also presents new and exclusive interviews with leading activists and educators in the world’s most promising social movements, including David Holmgren (permaculture), Helena Norberg-Hodge (localisation), Ted Trainer (the simpler way), Nicole Foss (energy and finance), Bill Metcalf (intentional communities) and Graham Turner (limits to growth).

The full documentary:

Then the text I included back then:

The fimmakers about their project:

The purpose of the documentary is to unflinchingly describe the overlapping crises of industrial civilisation and explain why a ‘simpler way’ of life, based on material sufficiency not limitless growth, signifies the only coherent response to those crises. The dominant mode of development today seeks to universalise high-consumption consumer lifestyles, but this is environmentally catastrophic and it has produced perverse inequalities of wealth. Even the privileged few who have attained material affluence rarely find it satisfying or fulfilling, because consumerism just leaves people feeling empty and alone. Consequently, our forthcoming documentary seeks to show why genuine progress today means rejecting consumerism, transcending growth economics, and building new forms of life based on permaculture, simple living, renewable energy, and localised economies.

But what does that mean? And how should we go about building a new world? Mainstream environmentalism calls on us to take shorter showers, recycle, buy ‘green’ products, and turn the lights off when we leave the room, but these measures are grossly inadequate. We need more fundamental change – personally, culturally, and structurally. Most of all, we need to reimagine the good life beyond consumer culture and begin building a world that supports a simpler way of life. This does not mean hardship or deprivation. It means focusing on what is sufficient to live well. The premise of our documentary is that a simple life can be a good life.

One of the main concerns driving this documentary, and the Wurruk’an project more generally, is the uncomfortable realisation that even the world’s most successful ecovillages have ecological footprints that are too high to be universalised. In other words, even after many decades of the modern environmental movement, we still don’t have many or any examples of what a flourishing ‘one planet’ existence might look. This is highly problematic because if people do not have some understanding of what sustainability requires of us or what it might look like, it will be hard to mobilise individuals and communities to build such a world. A Simpler Way represents an attempt to envision and demonstrate what ‘one planet’ living might look like and provoke a broader social conversation about the radical implications of living in an age of limits.

We hope that this documentary will challenge and inspire people to explore a simpler way of life and to begin building sufficiency-based economies that thrive within planetary limits. If you feel this is a worthwhile film for social change, please support our project by donating here [link coming soon] and sharing the link with your networks.

And finally, the Nicole interview I posted last year, of which significant parts are in the documentary.

Jan 092014
 
 January 9, 2014  Posted by at 1:44 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , ,  33 Responses »
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Dorothea Lange “Mr. Dougherty and kid. Warm Springs, Malheur County, Oregon” October 1939

David Holmgren, for whom I have the utmost respect, is best known as one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept. Permaculture is an ecological design method for regenerative agriculture, where the principles of natural systems are employed in order to create a self-sustaining means for food production while building soil fertility.

I am increasingly involved with permaculture (teaching it in Belize this February), as it represents one of the most important paths towards building workable life-support systems in our era of limits to growth. We are rapidly running out of options as we deplete our natural capital worldwide. While we badly need to make some informed hard choices, we collectively do not, as our consumptive system has tremendous inertia. As we reach the limits that lie in our not too distant future, permaculture can be of tremendous use, for those who implement it, in mitigating the impacts and facilitating rebuilding from the bottom-up.


David Holmgren’s Future Scenarios

Aside from his main body of work, Holmgren has also devoted significant consideration to exploring possible future energy descent scenarios, grounded in the twin threats of peak oil and climate change. See Future Scenarios from 2009. His thought modelling looks at how these limiting factors might intertwine with sociopolitical responses to create four classes of potential outcome.



The Brown Tech scenario was seen as one of modest energy supply decline combined with rapid climate change, in a centrally controlled, corporatist context emphasizing the development of unconventional fossil fuels and nuclear power. The impact of climate disruption and other discontinuities would lead to a greater need, and support, for large-scale government intervention. This scenario summarized as top down constriction of consumption.

The Green Tech route was envisaged as gradual energy descent, gradual climate impact, and would be typified by a controlled powerdown based on a shift towards renewable energy and electrification. The minimally disruptive move towards smaller-scale, relocalized, and distributed adaptations was seen as leading to greater egalitarianism.

Earth Steward describes a situation of rapid energy supply decline leading to economic collapse and major upheaval, reducing emissions sufficiently to address climate change, but eliminating larger political power structures. A rebuild from the bottom up would be required and would allow for design principles such as permaculture to be applied.

The final scenario – Lifeboats – involves both rapid energy supply collapse and severe climate impacts. Violent collapse would result in civilizational triage in isolated locations, with small-scale attempts to preserve knowledge through a long dark age.

Holmgren points out that these scenarios operate at inherently different scales in terms of energy density and organizational power, with Brown Tech operating at national scale, followed by Green Tech at city state scale, Earth Steward at the level of local community and finally Lifeboat at household scale. As such they can be described as nested. This is interesting as it is analogous to the nested adaptive cycles inherent in a fractal view of human and natural systems that we have described at The Automatic Earth . Scale is indeed a critical factor, and is primarily a function of energy availability. Holmgren argues that to some extent all scenarios are emerging simultaneously, operating at their different scales.



The initial scenario work was followed up in 2010 by a new essay, Money vs Fossil Energy: The battle for control of the world, looking at the financial system, and its interactions with the energy sector, as an additional important and limiting factor in models of how the future might play out in practice.  This perspective has recently been combined with an updated version of the scenario paper in Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future. In this latest essay, Holmgren acknowledges he draws on our work here at The Automatic Earth, particularly in relation to projections for the global financial system and its role as a driver of global economic contraction. As such it seems appropriate to respond in order to extend the discussion.

In his recent essay, Holmgren says that he had initially been expecting a more rapid contraction in available energy, and with it a substantial fall in greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, new forms of unconventional fossil fuels have been exploited, sustaining supply for the time being, but at the cost of raising emissions, since these fuels are far more carbon intensive to produce. Holmgren understands perfectly well that unconventional fossil fuels are no answer to peak oil, given the terribly low energy profit ratio, but the temporary boost to supply has postponed the rapid contraction he, and others, had initially predicted. In addition, demand has been falling in major consuming countries as a result of the impact of financial crisis on the real economy since 2008, further easing energy supply concerns. For this reason, the Green Tech and Brown Tech scenarios, based on modest energy decline, appear more plausible to him than the Earth Steward and Lifeboat scenarios predicated upon rapid energy supply collapse. However, Green Tech would have required a major renewable energy boom sufficient to revitalize rural economies, and he recognizes that there appears to be no time for that to occur. Nor is there the collective political will to take actions to power-down or reduce emissions.

He concludes that the Brown Tech scenario appears by far the most likely, and is, in fact, already emerging. Rather than geological, biological, energetic or climate limits striking first, he suggests, in line with our view at TAE, that perturbations in the highly complex global financial system are likely to shape the future in the shorter term. As such he has become far more interested in finance, recognizing that the world has been pushed further into overshoot by throwing money at the banks, while transferring risk to the public on a massive scale, which is setting us up for a major financial reset. In combination with the climate chaos Holmgren anticipates that governments will need to assume control, moving from a market to a command economy.


Finance, Energy and Complexity

There is much I agree with here, most notably the primacy of financial collapse as a driver of short term change. The situation we find ourselves in is at such an extreme in terms of comparing the enormous overhang of virtual wealth in the form of IOUs with the actual underlying collateral that the reset could be both rapid and devastating. This could produce a number of cascading impacts on supply chains in a short space of time, as Holmgren acknowledges in citing David Korowicz’s excellent essay on the subject – Trade Off. This is likely to make governments choose to take control, but also likely to make that very difficult, and therefore very unpleasant. In some places control may win out, leading to a Brown Tech type of outcome after the dust has settled, and in others a more chaotic state may dominate, leading to more of a Lifeboat scenario. The difference may not hinge on energy supply alone, although this may well be a significant factor in some places.

It is our view at TAE that for a time energy limits are not likely to manifest, as lack of money will be the limiting factor in a major financial crisis. At the present time, with modestly increasing energy supply, the delusion of far greater increases to come, and falling demand, energy is already ceasing to be a pressing concern. As liquidity dries up, and demand falls much further as a result of both lack of purchasing power and plummeting economic activity, this will be even more the case. The perception of glut lowers prices, and this will hit the energy industry very hard due to its rapidly increasing cost base, and therefore its dependency on high prices. As prices fall and the business case disappears, much of the expensive supply will dry up, including most, if not all, of the unconventional fossil fuels currently touted as the solution.

Prices are likely to fall faster than the cost of production, leaving profit margins fatally squeezed. While money remains the limiting factor, few may worry about the energy future, but the demand collapse will lead to a supply collapse in the future due to lack of investment for a long time, the concurrent decay of existing infrastructure no one can afford to maintain, transport disruption due to a lack of letters of credit, and the impact of intentional damage inflicted by angry people. Financial crisis takes the pressure off temporarily, but a the cost of aggravating the energy shortfall, and the impact of that shortfall, in the longer term.

Producing energy from “low energy profit ratio” energy sources requires a financial system capable of providing copious amounts of affordable capital, and is dependent on the availability of cheap conventional fossil fuels in order to supply the up-front energy necessary for what are highly energy intensive processes. In energy terms, low energy profit ratio energy sources are nothing more than an extension of the current high energy profit ratio conventional fossil fuel era, which is what sustains the current level of socioeconomic complexity. The financial system is one of its most complex manifestations, and therefore one of its most vulnerable.

Once the financial system has the accident that is clearly coming, we will be looking at a substantial fall in societal complexity, but that fall in complexity will eliminate the possibility of engaging in such highly complex activities as fracking, horizontal drilling, exploiting the deep offshore or producing solar photovoltaic panels and inverters. “Low energy profit ratio” energy sources cannot by themselves maintain a level of socioeconomic complexity necessary to produce them, hence they will never be a meaningful energy source.

This is true of both unconventional fossil fuels and renewable power generation. The development of low energy profit ratio energy sources rests largely on Ponzi dynamics, and Ponzi schemes tend to come to an abrupt end.

Once this becomes clear, the gradual fall in supply is likely to morph into a rapid one. As the ability to project power at a distance depends on energy supply, and that may be compromised, perhaps within a decade, maintaining any kind of large scale command economy may not be possible for that long. However, consolidating access to a falling energy supply at the political centre under a command scenario, at the expense of the population at large, may sustain that centre for somewhat longer.

Seen through an energy profit ratio and complexity lens, a Green Tech scenario appears increasingly implausible. Green Tech – the use of technology to capture renewable energy and convert it into a concentrated form capable of doing work – is critically dependent on the fossil fuel economy to build and maintain its infrastructure, and also to maintain the level of socioeconomic complexity necessary for it, and the machinery it is meant to run, to function. A renewable energy distant future is certainly likely, but not a technological one. One can have green or tech, but ultimately not both.


Scale, Hierarchy and ‘Functional Stupidity’:

A substantial point of agreement between Holmgren’s work and ours here at TAE is that the scale Brown Tech would operate on in a constrained future would be national rather than international. There are many who worry about One World Government under a fascist model. This may have been the trajectory we have been on taken to its logical conclusion, but if crisis is indeed proximate, then we are very unlikely to reach this point. We have likened layers of political control to trophic levels in an ecosystem, as all political structures concentrate wealth at the centre at the expense of the periphery which they ‘feed upon’:

The number of levels of predation a natural system can support depends essentially on the amount of energy available at the level of primary production and the amount of energy required to harvest it. More richly endowed areas will be able to support -more- complex food webs with many levels of predation. The ocean has been able to support more levels of predation than the land, as it requires less energy to cover large distances, and primary production has been plentiful. A predator such as the tuna fish is the equivalent, in food chain terms, of a hypothetical land predator that would have eaten primarily lions. On land, ecosystems cannot support that high a level predator, as much more energy is required to harvest less plentiful energy sources.

If one thinks of political structures in similar terms, one can see that the available energy, in many forms, is a key driver of how complex and wide-ranging spheres of political control can become. Ancient imperiums achieved a great deal with energy in the forms of wood, grain and slaves from their respective peripheries. Today, we have achieved a much more all-encompassing degree of global integration thanks to the energy subsidy inherent in fossil fuels. Without this supply of energy (in fact without being able to constantly increase this supply to match population growth), the structures we have built cannot be maintained.

The international level of governance is comparable to a top level predator. When the energy supply at the base of the pyramid is reduced, and the energy required to obtain it increases, as will inevitably be the case in this era of sharply falling energy profit ratios, the system will lose the ability to support as many layers of ‘predation’. We are very likely to lose at least the top level, if not more levels on the way down as energy descent continues. A national level of Brown Tech may last for a while, but as energy descent continues, so will the diminution of the scale and complexity at which society can operate.

Living on an energy income, supplemented with limited storage in the form of grain or firewood or water stored high in the landscape, and also limited ability to physically leverage effort with slavery or the use of draft animals, does not provide the same range of possibilities as living on our energy inheritance has done. Without fossil fuels, the technology of the ancient world (Rome for instance) is probably the most that an imperial degree of energy concentration can provide. Greater concentration is possible when a wide geographical area comes under a single political hegemony and feeds a single political centre at a high level of political organization. Lower levels of political organization (ie during the inter-regnem in between successive imperiums) would provide for less resource concentration and therefore would sustain a lower level of socioeconomic complexity and ‘technology’.

Energy is not the only factor determining effective organizational scale, however. The functionality of the financial system is a major determinant of the integrity of supply chains, and hence social stability. Societal trust is vital, and can be extremely ephemeral. The more disruptive a future of limits to growth, across a range of parameters, the further downward through Holmgren’s nested scenarios we are likely to go.

In building scenarios, I would add rapid versus gradual financial crisis as a separate parameter. Personally, I believe a rapid financial crash combined with an initially slow, but then increasingly rapid fall in energy supply is the most likely scenario. Financial crisis can cause many of the effects Holmgren discusses in his scenario work in relation to energy and climate impacts.

This article addresses just one of the many issues discussed in Nicole Foss’ new video presentation, Facing the Future, co-presented with Laurence Boomert and available from the Automatic Earth Store. Get your copy now, be much better prepared for 2014, and support The Automatic Earth in the process!

As for the climate change portion of the analysis, Holmgren points out that mainstream policy is shifting from mitigation to adaptation, in recognition of the failure to achieve any kind of progress on emissions control at the international level. Substantive action to reduce emissions is seen, for obvious reasons, as precipitating economic contraction, and no government is prepared to take that risk, especially when so many are on the edge financially in any case. Holmgren also addresses the growing realizations that reductions in emissions in one region may be bought at the expense of increases in another, with no net decrease overall, and that no decoupling between resource use and economic growth is feasible.

This is very much a position I would agree with. Decoupling is nothing but an illusion. There has always been a very close correlation between energy use in particular and economic growth. In the era of globalization we claim to have reduced the energy intensity of our developed economies, but we have in fact merely displaced the energy used to the new manufacturing centres. We import goods manufactured on some other economy’s energy budget (and water budget and other resources as well). The prospects for any kind of international agreement on emissions reduction, or any kind of efficacious top-down policy response at all, seem to be bleak to non-existent.

Internationally, no one party will agree to disadvantage itself in a competitive global economy when it does not trust that others will do the same. Nationally, policies favour growth and profit. Even policies ostensibly conceived to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions may well be implemented in a manner having the opposite effect because some aspect of that implementation was profitable for some well connected party. For instance, a policy mandating high-tech smart metering for electricity requires complex manufacturing facilities a great cost in terms of both money and energy, but can deliver only minor load shifting, leading likely to a net increase in both energy use and emissions. Low-tech metering with consumer feedback could achieve far more in terms of energy savings at far less energy cost up front, but is less profitable, and so is not implemented.

Expecting governments to deliver any improvement whatsoever in this regard appears to be quite unrealistic. Governments achieve the exact opposite of their stated policy goals with remarkable regularity, all too often making bad situations worse as expensively as possible. Dimitri Orlov quotes, and further develops, a convincing explanation for this phenomenon or large scale ‘functional stupidity’:

Mats Alvesson and André Spicer, writing in Journal of Management Studies (49:7 November 2012) present “A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations” in which they define a key term: functional stupidity. It is functional in that it is required in order for hierarchically structured organizations to avoid disintegration or, at the very least, to function without a great deal of internal friction. It is stupid in that it is a form of intellectual impairment: “Functional stupidity refers to an absence of reflexivity, a refusal to use intellectual capacities in other than myopic ways, and avoidance of justifications.” Alvesson and Spicer go on to define the various “…forms of stupidity management that repress or marginalize doubt and block communicative action” and to diagram the information flows which are instrumental to generating and maintaining sufficient levels of stupidity within organizations.

Hence any meaningful change will need to come from the bottom-up.


Climate

I do not focus on climate change in my own work, partly because top-down policies vary between useless and counter-productive, and partly because, in my opinion, the science is far more complex and less predictable than commonly thought, and finally because success in generating a genuine fear of climate change is likely to produce human responses that achieve far more harm than good.

Many people seem to believe there is a linear relationship between carbon dioxide as a driver and increasing temperature as the result, but if there is one thing we know about climate it is that it is not linear. The models, while complex, have not been accurate predictors of the current situation and are therefore incomplete. As for the future, the models do not include factors such as the impact of an economic collapse or a large fall in energy use. There are multiple complex feedback loops that are not well enough understood, all of which interact with each other in highly complex ways. There is also a very long term cycle of natural forcings (note the time scale in thousands of years) providing the backdrop to anthropogenic impacts, and that is also not well enough understood. The net effect of the the very long term natural cycle and the much shorter term anthropogenic impacts is unknown. Global dimming, due to particulate matter in the atmosphere, affects incident solar radiation reaching the Earth. This could change on a much faster time scale than carbon dioxide, which has a very long residence time in the atmosphere, under conditions of economic collapse. This is also not adequately modelled.

In my view the situation is too complex and chaotic to make reliable predictions. In some ways what we think we know, on the basis of assuming a system to be simpler than it actually is, can be more dangerous than what we acknowledge we do not know, as we may take entirely the wrong actions and end up compounding the problem. See for instance Allan Savory’s excellent lecture on the attempt to reverse desertification (a major source of greenhouse gas emissions) through culling fauna, finding it had the opposite effect, and now attempting to remedy the situation while haunted by regret. His talk illustrates both a very important, but mostly ignored, factor in relation to climate change, and also the dangers inherent on relying on received wisdom. Overly simplistic models are often flawed, and applying them can easily cause, or fail to avoid, substantial harm that may then be difficult to reverse.

Apocalyptic predictions of near term human extinction have been made by some commentators, and drastic ‘solutions’ proposed as a result. I would regard such predictions as unlikely, disempowering and dangerous, in the sense that they could, when fear is in the ascendancy anyway, provoke a disproportionate fear response that could in itself be very destructive. When people become collectively fearful, they tend to over-react as a crowd, potentially causing more damage through that over-reaction than might have been caused by the circumstance itself. Fear can be exploited to provide a political mandate for extremists who would then be able to wreak havoc on the fabric of society. Fear needs no encouragement at such times. It will get more than enough traction, and do more than enough damage, all by itself. Actively undermining it is a better approach, as may keep more people in a constructive headspace.

If fear of apocalyptic climate change did grab the collective imagination, there are a number of outcomes which seem particularly plausible. All of them are counter-productive in some way. The first we have already seen – carbon trading system ponzi schemes. This involves financializing yet another aspect of reality, when over-financialization, and the consequent ballooning of virtual wealth, are what have led to our current debt crisis. Financialization is popular with the powerful, because it generates substantial, and concentrable, profits, feeding greater central control by Big Capital. It would probably also generate far more greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon trading allows the wealthy to continue business as usual while paying the poor to address the problems caused, but there is no guarantee that doing so would be effective. Perverse incentives would probably see the funds used for very different purposes.

The second predictable action is massive infrastructure investment in adaptation, which could consume large amounts of finite resources and generate substantial emissions. Large scale public procurement contracts are profitable, secure sources of on-going corporate income and are highly sought-after, as we have seen in Iraq for instance. Companies able to exploit the fear could benefit very handsomely today by building things that may or may not have any value in the future. They would have an incentive to play up the fear in order to extract contracts, and this would be harmful in itself.

The third possibility is widespread geo-engineering – the deliberate release of particulate matter into the atmosphere in order to increase global dimming. This amounts to interfering in a complex and delicate system with a blunt instrument, but it fits with the prevailing technological hubris and would probably generate substantial profits for someone, hence it is all too likely to catch on. The mentality behind it is that the problems of complexity can always be addressed with greater complexity, or in other words, business as usual must continue at any price, and the consequences can always be dealt with through technological intensification. Those consequences are unpredictable and could be disastrous.

The fourth plausible response is eco-fascism, along the lines of Holmgren’s Brown Tech scenario, but with a greenwash. Times of economic contraction tend to be times when people seek control over others, and control over access to the remaining supply of resources. Any excuse will do as a pretext for establishing command and control. Eco-fascism is simply fascism at the end of the day – a mechanism for depriving the masses and consolidating, and generally abusing, tight control in the hands of the few. It would make quality of life immeasurably worse and probably not reduce carbon emissions significantly, as control mechanisms are energy intensive.

Finally, we could see a mood of collective self-flagellation take hold, with the impulse to destroy what we have built on the grounds that it is purely destructive of the natural world. Being destructive in order to remedy destructiveness seems perverse, but is already being presented as a serious imperative in some circles. If implemented it would probably lead to the general demonization of environmentalists and the full range of ideas they propose, as well as do great harm to those least able to get out of the way.

Given that these five possibilities seem the most likely responses to real fear of climate change, and that all of them are likely to make the situation worse in some way, generating fear of climate change seems to be a counter-productive strategy. We could even see several of them at once, for a truly ghastly outcome causing harm on many fronts, and at many scales, simultaneously.

Where awareness is raised without visceral fear, climate change still does not seem to be a motivator for the kind of constructive behaviours that might make a difference in the aggregate. The scale is too large for people to feel that individual actions could ever be useful, which is disempowering. The time-frame is too remote, leading to complacency, and the consequences are not perceived as personal. As humans we are not typically very good at addressing problems which are neither personal nor immediate.

The economic contraction that is coming is very likely to have a far more substantial impact on emissions than any deliberate policy or collective action. The combination of this contraction and constructive collective action could be very powerful indeed, but achieving the latter action is not best done on the grounds of climate change. The same actions that would best address climate change in the aggregate are also the prescription for dealing with financial crisis and peak oil – hold no debt, consume less, relocalize, increase community self-sufficiency, reduce dependency on centralized life-support systems.

The difference is that both financial crisis and peak oil are far more personal and immediate than climate change, and so are far bigger motivators of behavioural change. For this reason, addressing arguments in these terms is far more likely to be effective. In other words, the best way to address climate change is not to talk about it.


Grass Roots Initiatives

Holmgren argues that time is running out for bottom-up initiatives to blunt the impact of falling fossil fuel supply. While simpler ways of doing things at the household and community level could sustain a less energy dependent world, uptake is limited and time is short. Holmgren points out that during the Soviet collapse, the informal economy was the country’s saving grace, allowing people to survive the collapse of much of the larger system. For instance, when the collective farms failed, the population fed themselves on 10% of the arable land by gardening in every space to which they had access. This kind of self-reliance can be very powerful, but the ability to adapt is path-dependent. Where a society finds itself prior to collapse – in terms of physical capacity, civil society and political culture – determines how the collapse will be handled. Dale Allen Pfeiffer’s excellent book Eating Fossil Fuels, comparing the Cuban and North Korean abrupt loss of energy supplies, makes this point very clearly. Cuba, with its much better developed civil society and greater flexibility was able to adapt, albeit painfully, while the rigidly hierarchical North Korea saw very much larger impacts.

Dimitri Orlov has argued very persuasively that the Soviet Union was far better prepared than the western world to face such circumstances, as the informal economy was much better developed. The larger system was so inefficient and ineffectual that people had become accustomed to providing for themselves, and had acquired the necessary skills, both physical and organizational. Their expectations were modest in comparison with typical westerners, and their system was far less dependent on money in circulation. One would not be thrown out of a home, or have utilities cut off, for want of payment, hence people were able to withstand being paid months late if at all and were still prepared to perform the tasks which kept supply chains from collapsing.

The economic efficiency of western economies, with very little spare capacity in a system operating near its limits, is their major vulnerability. As James Howard Kunstler has put it, “efficiency is the straightest path to hell”, because there is little or no capacity to adapt in a maxed out system. The combination of little physical resilience, enormous debt, substantial vulnerability even to small a small rise in interest rates, the potential for price collapse on leveraged assets, a relatively small skill base, legal obstacles to small scale decentralized solutions, an acute dependence on money in circulation and sky high expectations in the context of widespread ignorance as to approaching limits is set to turn the collapse of the western financial system into a perfect storm.

Time is indeed short and there will be a limit to what can possibly be accomplished. However, whatever people do manage to achieve could make a difference in their local area. It is very much worth the effort, even if the task at hand appears overwhelming. Given that a top-down approach stands very little chance of altering the course of the Titanic, we might as well direct our efforts towards things that can potentially be successful as there is no better way to proceed. Reaching limits to growth will impose severe consequences, but these can be mitigated. Acting to create conditions conducive to adaptation in advance can make a difference to how crises are handled and the impact they ultimately have.

Holmgren argues that collapse in fact offers the best way forward, that a reckoning postponed will be worse when the inevitable limit is finally reached. The longer the expansion phase of the cycle continues, the greater the debt mountain and the structural dependence on cheap energy become, and the more greenhouse gas emissions are produced. Considerable pain is inflicted on the masses by the attempt to sustain the unsustainable at any cost. If we need to learn to live within limits, we should do so sooner rather than later. Holmgren focuses particularly on the potential for collapse to sharply reduce emissions, thereby perhaps preventing the climate catastrophe built into the Brown Tech scenario.

He raises the possibility that concerted effort by a large enough minority of middle class westerners to convert from dependent consumers to independent producers could derail an already over-stretched and vulnerable financial system which requires perpetual growth to survive. He suggests that a 50% reduction in consumption and a 50% conversion of assets into building resilience by 10% of the population of developed countries would create a 5% reduction in demand and savings capital available for banks to lend.

This article addresses just one of the many issues discussed in Nicole Foss’ new video presentation, Facing the Future, co-presented with Laurence Boomert and available from the Automatic Earth Store. Get your copy now, be much better prepared for 2014, and support The Automatic Earth in the process!

An involuntary demand collapse is, in any case, characteristic of periods of economic depression. Conversion of assets from the virtual wealth of the financial world to something tangible would have to be done well in advance of financial crisis, as the value of purely financial assets is likely to evaporate in a large scale repricing event, leaving nothing to convert. There are far more financial assets that constitute claims to underlying real wealth than there is real wealth to be claimed, and only the early movers will be able to make a claim. This is already well underway among the elite who are aware that financial crisis is approaching. In a world where banks create money as debt at the stroke of a pen, a pool of savings is not actually necessary for lending. Lending rests to a much greater extent on the perception of risk in the financial system. The impacts of proposed actions would not be linear, as the financial system is not mechanistic, meaning that quantitative outcomes would not necessarily be predictable. Holmgren recognizes this in his acknowledgement that small changes in the balance of supply and demand can have a disproportionate impact on prices.

Holmgren realizes the risks inherent in explicitly advocating such an approach, both at a personal level and in terms of the permaculture movement as a whole. These concerns are very valid. Permaculture has a very positive image as a solution to the need for perpetual growth, and this might be put at risk if it became associated with any deliberate attempt to cause system failure. While I understand why Holmgren would open a discussion on this front, given what is at stake, it is indeed dangerous to ‘grasp the third rail’ in this way. This approach has some aspects in common with Deep Green Resistance, which also advocates bringing down the existing system, although in their case in a more overtly destructive manner. In a command economy scenario, which seems at least temporarily likely, such explicitly stated goals become the focus, regardless of the least-worst-option rationale and the positive means by which the goals are meant to be pursued. A movement best placed to make a difference could find itself demonized and its practices uncomprehendingly banned, which would be simply tragic.

Decentralization initiatives already face opposition, but this could become significantly worse if perceived to be even more of a direct threat to the establishment. While they hold the potential to render people who disengage from the larger system very much better off, on the grounds of increased self-reliance, they also hold the potential to make targets of the early adopters who would be required to lead the charge. Much better, in my opinion, to continue the good work with the declared, and entirely defensible, goals of building greater local resilience and security of supply while preserving and regenerating the natural world. While almost any form of advance preparation for a major crisis of civilization would have the side-effect of weakening an existing system that increasingly requires total buy-in, there is a difference between side-effect and stated goal.

The global financial system is teetering on the brink of a major crisis in any case. It does not need any action taken to bring it down as it has already had easily enough rope to hang itself. Inviting blame for an inevitable outcome seems somewhat reckless given the likelihood that many will be casting about for scapegoats. Holmgren argues that, as those who warn of a crash are likely to be blamed for causing it anyway, they might as well be proactive about it. Personally, I would rather not provide a convenient justification for misplaced blame.

Holmgren discusses the case for seeking disinvestment from fossil fuel industries, citing the report Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets. The premise of this report is that 60-80% of the fossil fuel reserves on the books of energy companies could become worthless stranded assets if governments implemented decisive action on climate change. If this perception caught on, the authors suggest it might cause investors to dump the sector rapidly, causing a proportionate loss of share value as a result. Financial markets do not work this way. Prices are not based on the fundamentals, and the prevailing positive feedback dynamics cause disproportionate reactions in both directions. Shares in fossil fuel companies will never be valued rationally in accordance with the supposedly predictable impacts of government regulation. Just as they are over-valued at times when commodities are prices peaking on fear of imminent shortages, they become undervalued in the following bust. First they are bid up beyond what the fundamentals would justify, then they crash to far below.

Personally, I regard the probability of governments acting to actually constrain emissions as negligible in any case, for reasons already discussed. Comprehensive regulatory capture has ensured that Big Capital writes the rules by which it is regulated. It is not going to impose controls which harm its own profitability. Energy is inherently valuable, and will only become more so in an energy constrained future. (However, the value of energy and the value of energy companies are not the same thing.) While low energy profit ratio energy sources are only a manifestation of the current bubble, and will eventually be abandoned out of necessity, remaining high energy profit ratio energy sources are highly unlikely to be left underground in the longer term, whatever the impact of burning them might be.

Their exploitation may well be delayed during a period of economic depression where demand would be low, financial risk would be high as price would fall faster than the cost of production, and economic visibility would be low. Very little investment occurs during contractionary times, but as the economy eventually moves into a form of limited recovery, demand would pick up and resource constraints would reassert themselves as limiting factors. At that point, anything which could be exploited almost certainly would be, and there may well be conflict over the right to exploit resources. Oil remains liquid hegemonic power and adequately accessible reserves will never become stranded assets.

In a world of short term priorities, longer term considerations are not taken into consideration, and the destabilization inherent in a period of crisis only aggravates short-termism by causing discount rates to spike. Unfortunately, environmental concerns are longer term.

Holmgren emphasizes the need to prioritize local investment in the real economy, with which I very much agree. He points out that affluent nations have a long history of extracting wealth from the informal household and community sectors for the benefit of the formal, monetized economy, but that we have little experience of reversing that trend. Michael Shuman’s excellent book Local Dollars, Local Sense makes the case for the substantial benefits that could be achievable if such a shift were to take place. Of course, as already discussed, time is short, but still, any informed action taken in advance of crisis could have disproportionately beneficial effects later on. For instance, promoting business entities with a cooperative structure can be a powerful tool for maintaining relatively local control.

One way to promote local spending is to introduce a local currency. While it may well be impossible to persuade people to spend national currency only locally if it meant paying more or limiting choices, a local currency must be spent locally as it would not be accepted elsewhere. Every monetary unit spent, and therefore circulating, locally has far more beneficial effect than one spent outside the area. External spending siphons wealth away from communities, and we have been encouraged to spend almost everything externally in recent years. Cheaper alternatives operating with economies of scale have deprived local business of a market for their goods and services, often eliminating those local options over time. This is how the centre thrives at the expense of the periphery. Reversing this trend may well require instituting a monetary system which removes the option to spend it elsewhere. This, if it can persist for long enough, should act as a driver for the provision of local goods and services.

Local currencies can run in tandem with national currencies and can act to expand the money supply in a defined area. As such they can be particularly useful to address the artificial scarcity of a liquidity crunch, where people and resources still exist, but cannot be deployed for lack of money in circulation. Local currencies can be designed to depreciate, which acts as an explicit support for the velocity of money. However, this may cause difficulties if local and national currency are convertible and the national currency does not depreciate. On the other hand, lack of convertibility could make it more difficult to confer value and full acceptability on the local currency. An alternative currency which can be used to pay local taxes will have a distinct advantage in terms of acceptability as was the case in the classic example – the depression-era Austrian town of Wörgl.

Of course a money monopoly is a very significant power, and as such is very likely to be defended, as indeed it was in depression-era Austria. This limits the prospects, and likely the duration, for alternative currencies, but they nevertheless achieve a great deal while they operate, as they currently are doing in Greece. Eventually, in a period of sufficient upheaval, a money monopoly may be impossible to sustain, then local currencies would be freer to operate. They would still be subject to distortions for political gain, money printing and ponzi dynamics over the longer term, given that they would still be operated by corruptible human beings, but at least these would exist on a smaller scale, not representing systemic risk as the flaws in the larger financial system currently do. Essentially there is no such thing as an inflation-proof, peer to peer system which would be expected to be stable over the long term, as monetary systems move in cycles of boom and bust. It is our job to navigate the waves of expansion and contraction which we cannot eliminate.

Any initiative which reduces our dependence on national currency in circulation is going to be useful in this regard, including barter networks, time-banking, tool and seed libraries, and gifting. There are already well established barter networks in some countries operating at a national scale, for instance Barter Card in New Zealand and the WIR network in Switzerland. Additional networks at a local scale could also be very useful, although more inherently limited in scope. Time-banking, libraries and gifting are more profoundly local, and act not just as means of exchange without the need for money, but also as mechanisms to build trust and community cohesiveness. This is a tremendous benefit in its own right, as a major boost for local resilience.

Holmgren points out that holding cash under one’s own control, outside of the banking system can greatly increase resilience by reducing dependency on the solvency of middle men. This is very much in accordance with our position at TAE, as cash is king in a period of deflation. People who spend in cash tend to spend less as it feels more like spending than electronic payments do. They tend therefore to be less likely to be overstretched and vulnerable to a financial collapse.


Building Parallel Systems

Holmgren stresses the urgent need to opt out of the increasingly centralized and destructive mainstream though building parallel systems prior to the advent of a Brown Tech future, which he feels could last many decades before descending further into a low-energy Lifeboat scenario. He points out that at the moment we have the luxury of keeping one foot in each camp, so that we have the opportunity to develop alternatives before we have to rely on the results. We can experiment, but with a safety net.

I am in agreement, with the exception of the timeframe for the longevity of a Brown Tech system. The scale of the coming disruption, albeit initially due to financial rather than energy crisis, is likely to be large enough to shorten the length of time the political centre can maintain the ability to project power at a distance. Learning curve time for opt-out solutions, short as it may be, could be very valuable. Unfortunately, attempting to straddle two worlds simultaneously can involve all the work of both with few of the benefits of either, hence moving over as far as possible to concentrate on the opt-out position is probably more adaptive.

As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In other words, change comes incrementally and organically from the bottom-up, rather than by fighting to change top-down policies. Initially, pushing for grass roots change can require considerable human energy input, but once a critical mass is reached the movement can take on a life of its own very rapidly, especially if it suddenly coincides greater advantage as prevailing circumstances shift. The proactive phase is difficult, as people rarely prepare in advance for approaching change, but proactive can become reactive as the change is reached, and the earlier effort can help to shape the direction that eventual reactive response will take.

Ideas that hit the zeitgeist can become fashionable, and this imparts much greater momentum. For instance, the tiny house movement is making it a matter of pride to live in smaller and simpler dwellings, with greater emphasis on good design than physical space. More and more young people are choosing to opt out of the path taken by their peers, as that path towards debt slavery becomes ever more obviously disadvantageous. The non-passive portion of this  group is looking for direction, and is prepared to find it in non-mainstream places. Providing this could amount to seeding very fertile ground.

Being beneath the notice of larger powers hoping to maintain monopolies and control can be protective. Hence working at small scale, but in many locations simultaneously, could allow systems conferring greater local independence and resilience to become established with a lower likelihood of being suppressed as a threat by the powers-that-be.  

Permaculture should be a major building-block of any kind of system reboot following the operating system crash that a financial crisis represents. After all, once we navigate that period of artificial scarcity, we will have to address the real scarcity inherent in looming resource limits. We will have to deal with the fact we are far into overshoot in comparison with the carrying capacity of the Earth, even with the artificially boosted carrying capacity we have thanks to fossil fuels (where about half of the nitrogen in the food supply comes from the artificial fixation of nitrogen from fossil fuels for instance). We have been strip mining soil fertility with intensive agri-business, disrupting the critical nitrogen cycle and poisoning the soil micro-organisms critical for fertility with pesticides such as round-up. We will have to undo all of the damage, but it will take us a very long time, and in the meantime we have over 7 billion mouths to feed. Permaculture, with its emphasis on soil regeneration, is the best possible way (click for video) to do this. If we are ever to approximate, at least temporarily, an Earth Steward scenario (in the distant future, once the dust has settled), this is the path we must take.

As Holmgren says, “A permaculture way of life empowers us to take responsibility for our own welfare, provides endless opportunities for creativity and innovation, and connects us to nature and community in ways that make sense of the world around us.” Motivated by enlightened self-interest, and operating at a manageable human scale, we can apply our knowledge of natural and human systems in the real world, without being overwhelmed by the task of feeling we are personally responsible for saving the whole world. It can be difficult to let go of the top-down approach, to stop putting all our efforts into trying to change government policies or get the ‘right’ people elected, as if this would somehow solve our problems.

We need to get down to the business of doing the things on the ground that matter, and to look after our own local reality. We can expect considerable opposition from those who have long benefited from the status quo, but if enough people are involved, change can become unstoppable. It won’t solve our problems in the sense of allowing us to continue any kind of business as usual scenario, and it won’t prevent us from having to address the consequences of overshoot, but a goal to move us through the coming bottleneck with a minimum amount of suffering is worth striving for.


This article addresses just one of the many issues discussed in Nicole Foss’ new video presentation, Facing the Future, co-presented with Laurence Boomert and available from the Automatic Earth Store. Get your copy now, be much better prepared for 2014, and support The Automatic Earth in the process!

Jan 052014
 
 January 5, 2014  Posted by at 1:32 pm Finance Tagged with: , , ,  22 Responses »
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William Gedney Cornett family, Kentucky. Boy covered in dirt smoking cigarette 1964

Here’s part 2 (actually it’s part 1, I inadvertently mixed them up, sorry!, see first part here.) of Nicole’s interview at Vancouver’s PeakmomentTV, along with Laurence Boomert, about the practical aspects of decentralization and alternative currencies, issues that everyone, in our opinion, should at least give some very serious thought.

Because whatever happens, and whether you think that the economy will crash or you don’t, communities can make themselves much wealthier from an -increased – localization of their economies.

Money spent locally is simply worth a lot more than that spent in big box stores, where profits disappear to some unspecified location like the Caymans, a process that forces the locals to bring in ever more money from outside their communities, just to play even. That’s truly and simply a vicious circle process.

Somebody recently estimated that the value to a local economy of US foodstamps is about $1.70 for every dollar’s worth. And foodstamps are far from an ideal example, because they are to a large extent still spent in box stores and fast food chains. I’ve seen estimates of $4 as the actual worth per dollar spent, and spent again, and kept, inside a local economy.

That means we could spend twice what we do today on for instance a pair of shoes, and, provided they are produced locally and the shoemaker spends what we pay, in the local economy, still come out twice as rich. Which would allow us to “subsidize” opening a local shoe “factory”, create jobs, and create wealth for everyone in the process. And so on and so forth.

I realize very well that this is largely theoretical (unfortunately), and that there are many intricacies and questions, but that doesn’t make the principle any less true. Yes, it’s true that we can’t produce everything in our community, but it’s just as true that we can produce a whole lot more locally than we do today, and certainly in basic necessities.

It’s in essence just a matter of preventing the fruits of local labor from being relentlessly drained out of a community.

Which is such an insidious cycle that the more you think about it, the harder it gets to see why we insist on engaging in this behavior. From a purely rational – let alone emotional – point of view, it makes no sense at all. Buying items on the cheap at box stores makes us poorer, it creates unemployment, and we increasingly lose control over our own communities, and hence our own lives.

You don’t need a crisis to see why that this is not the way to go, and that, moreover, if you do go that way, – more – crises are inevitable. You can’t constantly suck wealth from a community and expect it to still continue to do well all the time, year after year. Localization provides a cushion against crises in the larger economy, while centralization and globalization inevitably induce crises.

With the interview below, I included an article from Nicole dated January 3, 2012, entitled: The Storm Surge of Decentralization, that fits in very well with the topic.

Once again, I’d like to point out that much more of this material, and much more in depth, is available in our 4-hour video download series Facing the Future, which you can order from the TAE Store (click here). The Automatic Earth truly and badly needs your support at this point in time, so please keep your orders and donations coming in order to allow us to continue bringing you the biggest possible picture. Thank you.

We give you bang for your buck, even as we understand the irony, given the above, in not being in your community. You’ll have to get the ideas and the knowledge somewhere. Facing the Future, or its 2013 “sister”, A World of Change, may well be the best money you have ever spent, dollar for dollar. You can even burn the files onto DVDs and share them with your neighbors. Though we would prefer, of course, that everyone order their own copies, if only as a token of appreciation for our work.

Smart Choices for Meeting the Coming Bust, part 2

“How do we cooperate and build a collaborative culture now?” asks Laurence Boomert, founder of The Bank of Real Solutions in New Zealand. Local currencies, barter cards, and Time Banks not only create alternatives when money systems collapse, they allow people to get entrepreneurial and innovative. He gives examples of people sharing physical spaces equipped with tools and project materials, as well as people sharing their time.

One example is a story of idle young people doing weekly projects, even taking wheelchair-bound folks for a day of surfing! Everyone was a winner, feeling good about themselves and more connected to their community. “It’s vital to get young people involved,” concurs Nicole Foss, senior editor of The Automatic Earth, “No more throw-away people.”

Nicole Foss : The Storm Surge of Decentralization (from January 3, 2012 )


Nicole: One of our consistent themes at TAE has been not expecting solutions to come from the top down. Existing centralized systems depend on dwindling tax revenues, which will dry up to a tremendous extent over the next few years as economic activity falls off a cliff and property prices plummet.

We have already seen cuts to services and increases in taxes and user fees, and we can expect a great deal more of that dynamic as central authorities emulate hypothermic bodies. In other words, they will cut off the circulation to the fingers and toes in order to preserve the body temperature of the core. This is, of course, a survival strategy, from the point of view of the core. But it does nothing good for the prospects of ordinary people, who represent the fingers and toes.

Centralized systems also depend on the political legitimacy that has been conferred upon them as a result of public trust in them to serve the common interest. This trust is rapidly breaking down in an ever-expanding list of places, as ordinary people realize that their interests have been betrayed in favour of the well connected.

Those who played fraudulent ponzi games with other people’s money, and were in the best position to know what could result, have been bailed out time and time again, while the little guy has been told to expect more austerity measures. Protest is inevitable as political legitimacy fades. We are already seeing it spread like wildfire, which is exactly what one would expect given that human beings internalize, reflect and act on the emotions of others. Collective social mood that turns on a dime is very much part of what it means to be human.

The job of national and international politicians in contractionary times is typically to make a bad situation worse as expensively as possible, as they attempt to rescue the dying paradigm that has conveyed so much personal advantage in their direction. That paradigm is one of centralization – the accumulation of surpluses from a broad periphery at the centre of power.

However, the wealth conveyors of the past are breaking down, meaning that the periphery that can be drawn upon is shrinking. As the periphery shrinks, the remaining region within the grip of power can expect to be squeezed harder and harder. ‘Twas ever thus. Rome did the same thing, squeezing the peasants for tithes until they abandoned their land and threw in their lot with the surrounding barbarians.

Even if politicians were informed of what is unfolding on their watch, understood it, and were minded to act in favour of the common man as a result (which is itself unlikely), there would be nothing they could do. They are too deeply embedded in a system which is thoroughly hostage to vested interests and characterized by an extreme inertia that would drastically limit their freedom of action.

Such systems cannot be responsive within the timeframe that would actually matter in a financial crisis, where the risk is cascading system failure, potentially in a short period of time. Everything they might do would be too complex, too expensive and too slow to do much good. If we expect top-down solutions we will be disappointed, and more to the point, we will be unprepared to face a period of rapid change. By the time we realize that the cavalry is not coming, it may well be too late to do anything useful.

This is disheartening only to the extent that we see no other way to address our predicament. Fortunately, other strategies exist beyond attempting to preserve the unpreservable. What we must do is to decentralize – to build parallel systems to deliver the most basic goods and services in ways that are simple, cheap and responsive to rapidly changing circumstance.

We will not, of course, be able to provide for the level of wants our societies were previously able to cater to, but we can provide the most basic necessities if we prepare in advance. The key aspect is to align our expectations with reality, because the essence of our psychological conundrum is our sense that business as usual is a non-negotiable state of affairs that must continue.

It will not continue because it cannot. Business as usual is only non-negotiable in the sense that reality will not negotiate, it will dictate, and we will have to live within its parameters.

These topics and many others are discussed in Nicole Foss’ new video presentation, Facing the Future, co-presented with Laurence Boomert and available from the Automatic Earth Store. Get your copy now, be much better prepared for 2014, and support The Automatic Earth in the process!


There are many forms of decentralization – of opting out of the herd before it goes over the cliff. What they have in common is local resilience, a focus on local self-reliance and a thorough grounding in relationships of trust. As economies contract, so does the trust horizon.

Where there is no trust, systems cease to function effectively. Local initiatives work because they operate within the social space where trust still exists, and as they function, they reinforce those foundational relationships.

We need to be thinking in terms of local currencies, time banking (ie bartering skills), small transport networks, basic local healthcare, neighbourhood watch programs, adapting properties to multiple dwellings and permaculture initiatives that can rebuild soil fertility over time.

Also: rediscovery of local knowledge as to life conditions in the absence of current creature comforts, removing obstructive bylaws, small-scale food production free from structural dependencies on expensive and energy-intensive inputs, community power initiatives, communal water access, basic water treatment (like aid agencies employ in the third world), and perhaps intentional communities.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. There are many possibilities, and their relative importance will vary according to location and circumstances. So will their chance of success in a world that is path-dependent (ie where a society has collectively come from will shape how that society will respond to external stressors). The more we know about our region and our neighbours, the better our chances.

It is important to realize, however, that we are not going to be left in peace to do that which needs to be done. Solutions do not come from the top down, but interference does, because decentralization represents a threat to wealth concentration at the centre, and that is the goal of all human political systems.

Wealth is extracted from the periphery in favour of the centre, and the centre has an inexhaustible appetite. We are expected to pay our dues to that system, however onerous, not to try to reduce our own burden or that of our community. 

As the centre seeks continually to solve the problems raised by excess complexity with more complexity, it also raises the cost (in terms of money and resources) of doing everything it touches. The periphery is then expected to cover the cost of the regulation that makes its own existence more precarious.

That regulation may even make life so expensive and difficult that parts of the periphery are driven towards a very marginal existence or out of an area altogether. Cumbersome, impenetrable and poorly communicated regulations are a recipe for raising revenues through fines for non-compliance, therefore we can expect worse governance to be implemented in the interests of the centre.

Fines may be completely disproportionate to the scale of the ‘offence’. Where such regulations are devised with no transparency or accountability, but plenty of discretion on behalf of enforcement personnel, they may also become an engine of corruption. This is a very common circumstance in many parts of the world.

I wanted to explore some examples of central authorities attempting to preserve wealth conveyance at the expense of attempts to adapt to a new reality, so that we might better understand what we are up against. See, for instance, the case of the desert dwellers of Los Angeles County, many of whom have been living self-reliant lives for decades.

They are being pursued by distant authorities for supposed nuisance violations, yet they are disturbing no one. Their ‘crime’ is the very self-sufficiency that allows them to exist independent of centralized systems, and therefore affordably. They are being told to connect to services such as mains power, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, or to destroy their own property and leave with nothing.

Local organic food initiatives are often more contentious. Industrial agriculture and food processing corporations are very powerful, to the point of having subverted regulatory mechanisms ostensibly geared towards the public good, but which now serve to safe-guard corporate profits and market share.

If groups of people are allowed to assert their independence by opting out of the corporate food machine, then they are less subject to external control, as well as ceasing to be profit providers. Organic agriculture therefore faces substantial regulatory barriers, and, increasingly, extreme over-reactions by central authorities.

See, by way of example, the case of Rawesome Foods in California. The cooperative had become a private club in order to be allowed to provide raw milk to those who choose to avoid the over-processed commercial variety. Nevertheless, they were subjected to a raid by armed police officers with guns drawn. Opting out of the system in order to share resources constitutes a threat, and that threat is being targeted.

Heavy-handed food regulation has descended on many small farmers in recent years. They face an uphill battle against the centralizing impulse. A regulatory regime that imposes huge costs on small operations makes it very difficult for them to compete. Some of the enforcement incidents are outrageous.

See for instance the film Farmageddon. Jim Puplava at Financial Sense Newshour did a Must Listen interview recently with its creator, which makes eye-opening listening to put it mildly. 

Simply put, it is getting more and more difficult to operate outside of the corporate structure, particularly in relation to food. As Joel Salatin observed in a classic article on the subject of organic farming – Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal.

That means it is also getting more and more difficult in some places to purchase healthy food, as opposed to industrial food-like substances genetically-modified, tainted with all manner of chemicals, stuffed with addictive fillers such as high-fructose corn syrup, and vastly over-processed. The option to eat simple, wholesome, unprocessed, unadulterated, nutritious food is being whittled away, ironically on health grounds, just as demand for real food is skyrocketing

It is also falling foul of spurious ordinances to protect the uniformity of neighbourhoods by defending them from vegetables growing where anyone can see them. Jail terms can be threatened for the crime of seeking seeking to be more independent. Occasionally the corporate world will explicitly complain that eating unprocessed food kills jobs, but it is more common to approach the issue tangentially rather than head on.

Although not yet a reality, direct taxation of home-produced food has been floated. Unfortunately this idea is all too plausible. States are indeed desperate for revenue, and the connections politicians have with large corporations gives them a direct incentive to protect the profit margins of those who feather their nests:

I heard a state legislator today on the radio talking about taxing home gardens that grow vegetables and other produce. This state is in serious economic trouble and they are looking at every possible source of revenue. The legislator stated that many home gardeners sell their produce at flea markets and do not pay any sales tax, that the produce grown even if not sold amounts to income and should be taxed.

In 2006, Britain was already contemplating taxing gardens, not yet for the vegetables they produce, but simply for the property tax revenue stream government could extract for any distinguishable positive feature of a property.

It is not that much of a stretch to imagine an attempt at taxing produce, although this would obviously be very difficult to enforce. Fortunately, there do exist places where the opposite approach is gaining a foothold. Long may they continue. And spread.

At an even more basic level, seed control threatens both independence and biodiversity:

Two thirds of the 1.2 billion poorest people in the world live in rural areas and are dependent on traditional agriculture. They do not have the financial means to buy commercially available seed or the input factors needed to cultivate them.

However, they often have long experience with, and a profound understanding of, local plant diversity within crops such as grains, potatoes, vegetables and fruit. By cultivating and developing these crops they are contributing to the preservation and development of global plant genetic diversity, which constitutes the basis for the world’s food production.

Legislation ostensibly aimed at food safety is being written vaguely and broadly enough to confer unaccountable discretion on enforcement agencies already in a state of regulatory capture. The very necessary processes of seed saving from year to year, and seed banking, are well on the way to being criminalized, for the sake of protecting profit margins:

But now the effort is to take over the whole game, going after even these small sources of biodiversity – by simply defining seeds as food and then all farmers’ affordable mechanisms for harvesting (collecting), sorting (seed cleaning) and storing (seed banking or saving) as too dirty to be safe for food.
 
Set the standard for “food safety” and certification high enough that no one can afford it and punish anyone who tries to save seed in ways that have worked fine for thousands of years, with a million dollar a day fine and/or ten years in prison, and presto, you have just criminalized seed banking.
 
The penalties are tremendous, the better to protect us from nothing dangerous whatsoever, but to make monopoly over seed absolutely absolute.

One is left with control over farmers, an end to seed exchanges, an end to organic seed companies, an end to university programs developing nice normal hybrids, and an end to democracy – reducing us to abject dependence on corporations for food and gratitude even for genetically engineered food and at any price.

These topics and many others are discussed in Nicole Foss’ new video presentation, Facing the Future, co-presented with Laurence Boomert and available from the Automatic Earth Store. Get your copy now, be much better prepared for 2014, and support The Automatic Earth in the process!


On the other side of the Atlantic, EU seed control regulations are also making it difficult, and potentially expensive, to protect biodiversity:

[In February 2008], in France, the independent seed-saving and selling Association Kokopelli were fined €35,000 after being taken to court by corporate seed merchant Baumaux. Their crime was selling traditional and rare seed varieties which weren’t on the official EU-approved list – and, therefore, illegal to sell – thus giving them an ‘unfair trading advantage’.

As the European Commission met this week to prepare new legislation for seed control, due in 2009, which will further restrict the geographic movement and range of crop varieties, this ruling will set a dangerous precedent.

Kokopelli, the non-profit French group set up in 1999 to safeguard endangered seed strains, may be driven out of existence by the fine. Their focus is biodiversity, food security, and the development of sustainable organic agriculture and seed networks in the ‘global south’.

They have created one of the largest independent collections in Europe – with over 2500 sorts of vegetable, flower and cereals. Other non-government seedbanks are held by large agro-industrial companies like Limagrain, Syngenta and Pioneer – and guess what their main interest is money rather than starving subsistence farmers.

You may think that in an era of mass extinction it would be a no-brainer that we need to protect biodiversity and the heritage of the crop varieties which have been build up over centuries… but no.

Since the 1970s, laws in the UK and Europe mean that to sell seeds, the strain needs to be registered and everything else becomes ‘outlaw’ seeds, illegal to sell. In the UK it costs 300 per year to maintain the registration and 2000 to register a ‘new’ one which all disadvantages smaller organisations.

Garden Organic in the UK run a Heritage Seed Library, and they get around the law by not selling ‘outlaw’ seeds, but getting individual gardeners to become ‘seed guardians’ who pass around seeds for free to other members of the Library. Unlike other seedbanks, seeds are not kept in cold storage, but are living species which are continually grown and allowed to adapt to new environmental factors.

Another law-busting approach is seed swaps – which in recent years have sprouted up and down the country. People freely share seeds for another year’s growing – a co-operative way of maintaining genetic diversity.

Controlling the supply of necessities in order to generate monopoly profits is not new and is not limited to food. See for instance the erstwhile Bolivian water privatization that resulted in a requirement to obtain a permit even to capture rainwater. If access to affordable options is limited, people are forced to pay the rentiers their monopoly profits.

Collecting rainwater has been illegal in many western US states as well, since water rights are separate to property rights:

Like many Western states, Colorado employs a complicated system of water use known as prior allocation, which severs water rights from other property rights.

The system preserves an 80-year-old compact Colorado signed with other Western states (as well as a separate federal pact with Mexico) divvying up runoff from the Colorado River. It means you can buy a parcel of land in Colorado, but the right to any precipitation that falls on that land likely belongs to someone two houses over, two counties over, or even in another state.

It might also belong to a state or local government, but it probably doesn’t belong to you. Under Colorado law, then, collecting rainwater or reusing “gray water” from bathtubs or washing machines violates the rights of someone who may not see that water for months.

The recent change to the law to allow small-scale rainwater collection is a belated improvement. Previously it was illegal even to sell rainwater collection equipment.

“I was so willing to go to jail for catching water on my roof and watering my garden,” said Tom Bartels, a video producer here in southwestern Colorado, who has been illegally watering his vegetables and fruit trees from tanks attached to his gutters. “But now I’m not a criminal.”

Ben Elton’s brilliant (Must See) 1990 play Gasping explored the trend towards corporate control of necessities, and illustrated the point, taken to its logical conclusion:

Lockheart Industries are looking for a new product to make them huge sums of money. Their whizz-kid Philip comes up with the superb idea of designer air – Perrier for the lungs, in the form of their patent-pending Suck And Blow machine. For a while, all is well, and the machines are a huge success, as sales massively exceed all projections.

But greed forces up the price of air until the oxygen industry becomes privatised. And if you can’t afford to pay, you have no right to live. Philip’s conscience ultimately wins through at the end of the day, and he takes extreme measures to rectify everything he feels he has destroyed.

The need to move towards a decentralized future, and the hazards that may await the first movers who run into a brick wall of regulation, remind me of a British nature documentary called The Tides of Kirawira.

The scenario is that every year the great migratory herds of the Serengeti must cross seasonal rivers, but these rivers are populated with giant crocodiles. Every year the herd must cross, but it doesn’t pay to be the first or only gazelle, zebra or wildebeest in the river. There is safety in numbers. Once the whole herd is on the move, the vast majority reaches the other side.

One line from this that strikes a chord in relation to the collusion between government and corporations to fleece the little guy is: “The crocs work as a team. It’s easier to tear chunks of flesh from the bone when someone is holding the other end.” Regulations against decentralization immobilize people for corporate interests to extract their pound of flesh. 

In this instance, we need to emulate the herd animals and cross the river all at once. This is our best hope of achieving a simpler, decentralized future that might be workable, unlike our current industrial paradigm. We are going to have to live without cheap energy and cheap credit because they are going away. Decentralization is the only real option we have, but if we are to achieve what we need to achieve, we need to mobilize on a large scale rather than take only a few tentative steps into the crocodile infested waters.

These topics and many others are discussed in Nicole Foss’ new video presentation, Facing the Future, co-presented with Laurence Boomert and available from the Automatic Earth Store. Get your copy now, be much better prepared for 2014, and support The Automatic Earth in the process!

Jan 042014
 
 January 4, 2014  Posted by at 3:22 pm Finance Tagged with: , , ,  1 Response »
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William Gedney Cornett family, Kentucky. Family in car, baby looking back 1972

Peakmoment TV in Vancouver, Canada just published a two part interview with The Automatic Earth’s Nicole Foss, and her co-speaker on her recent US and Canada tour, Laurence Boomert. Just prior to that tour, Nicole and Laurence recorded our new download video series Facing the Future, which you are cordially invited to order from the TAE Store. It contains over 4 hours of what you see in the video. Here’s Peakmoment’s first post and video, plus an article they refer to that Nicole published at The Automatic Earth on January 24, 2012 (see below).

Part 2 of the interview will be here tomorrow.

Smart Choices for Meeting the Coming Bust, part 1

Most people are woefully unprepared for the depression that is now unfolding, says economic analyst Nicole M. Foss, senior editor of The Automatic Earth. In a depression, there’s not enough money in circulation. “But by using alternative currencies, we can provide our own liquidity and support economic activity in local areas.” Laurence Boomert, the founder of The Bank of Real Solutions, shares several success stories. When government spending dried up, his town of Golden Bay, New Zealand used their alternate currency to keep educational programs going.

One guide to cope with the difficult years ahead is Nicole’s “How to Build a Lifeboat”:

How to Build a Lifeboat (from January 24, 2012 )

Nicole: Yesterday we talked about why we are facing deflation and today I wanted to review and explain the suggestions we have made previously for dealing with a deflationary scenario. In short, this is the list we have run periodically since we started TAE (with one addition at the end):

1) Hold no debt (for most people this means renting)

2) Hold cash and cash equivalents (short term treasuries) under your own control

3) Don’t trust the banking system, deposit insurance or no deposit insurance

4) Sell equities, real estate, most bonds, commodities, collectibles (or short if you can afford to gamble)

5) Gain some control over the necessities of your own existence if you can afford it

6) Be prepared to work with others as that will give you far greater scope for resilience and security

7) If you have done all that and still have spare resources, consider precious metals as an insurance policy

8) Be worth more to your employer than he is paying you

9) Look after your health!

 

1) The reason that getting rid of debt is priority #1 is that during deflation, real interest rates will be punishingly high even if nominal rates are low. That is because the real rate (adjusted for changes in the money supply) is the nominal rate minus inflation, which can be positive or negative. During inflationary times, this means that the real rate of interest is lower than the nominal rate, and can even be negative as it was during parts of then 1970s and again in the middle of our own decade. People have taken on huge amounts of debt because they were effectively being paid to borrow, but periods of negative real interest rates are a trap. They lure people into too much debt that they may not be able to service if real rates rise even a little. Most people are thoroughly enmeshed in that trap now as real rates are set to rise substantially.

When inflation is negative (i.e. deflation), the real rate of interest is the nominal rate minus negative inflation. In other words, the real rate is higher than the nominal rate, possibly significantly higher. Even if the nominal rate is zero, the real rate can be high enough to stifle economic activity, as Japan discover during their long sojourn in the liquidity trap. Standard money supply measures don’t necessarily capture the scope of the problem as they don’t adequately account for on-going credit destruction, when credit has come to represent such a large percentage of the effective money supply.

The difficulty from the point of view of debtors can be compounded by the risk that nominal interest rates will not stay low for years, as they did in Japan, but may shoot up as the international debt financing model comes under stress. For instance, on-going bailouts may cause international lenders to balk at purchasing long term treasuries for fear of their effect on the value of the dollar, even though those bailouts are not increasing liquidity thanks to hoarding behaviour by banks. We are not there yet, but the probability of this scenario rises as we move forward with current policies. The effect would be to send nominal interest rates into the double digits, and real interest rates would be even higher. The chances of being able to service existing debts under those circumstances are not good, especially as unemployment will be rising very quickly.

There is no safe level of debt to hold, including mortgages. For those who are not able to own a home outright, most would be much better off selling and renting, as real estate becomes illiquid faster than almost anything else in a depression. By the time you realize that you need to sell because you can no longer pay the mortgage, it may be too late. Renting is essentially paying someone else a fee to take the property price risk for you, which is a very good bet during a real estate crash. It would also allow you address point #2 – having access to liquidity.

2) Holding cash and cash equivalents (i.e. short term treasuries) is vital as purchasing power will be in short supply. Cash is king in a deflation. Access to credit is already decreasing and will eventually disappear for ordinary people. Mass access to credit has been a product of an historic credit expansion that expanded the supply of pockets to pick to an unprecedented extent, feeding off widespread debt slavery in the process. As you can’t count on the availability of credit for much longer, you will need savings in liquid form that you can always access.

When interest rates spike, not only will debt become a millstone round your neck, but a debt-junkie government forced to pay very high rates will be in the same position. As a result government spending will have to be cut drastically, withdrawing the social safety net just as it is most needed. In practical terms, this means being on your own in a pay-as-you-go world. You do NOT want to face this eventuality with no money.

3) Keeping the savings you need in the banking system is problematic. The banking system is deeply mired in the crisis in the derivatives market. Huge percentages of their assets are not marked-to-market, but marked-to-make-believe using their own unverifiable models. The market price would be pennies on the dollar for many of these ‘assets’ at this point, and poised to get worse rapidly as the forced assets sales that are coming will lower prices further. The losses will eventually dwarf anything we have seen so far, pushing more institutions into mergers or bankruptcy, and mergers are becoming more difficult as the pool of potential partners shrinks.

If we do see a rash of bank failures, each of which weakens the position of others as the sale of their assets and unwinding of their derivative positions can re-price similar ‘assets’ held by other parties, then deposit insurance will not be worth the paper it’s written on. When everything is guaranteed, nothing is, as the government cannot guarantee value. Savings held in these institutions are at much higher risk than commonly thought due to the systemic threats posed by a derivatives meltdown and spreading crisis of confidence. Fractional reserve banking depends on depositors not wanting their money back all at once, in fact with reserve requirements so whittled away in recent years, it depends on no more than a fraction of 1% of depositors wanting their money back at once. This is a huge vulnerability and the government deposit guarantee is a bluff waiting to be called.

4) The general rule of thumb in a deflation is to sell everything that isn’t nailed down and then sell whatever everything else is nailed to, for the reasons that assets prices will fall further than most people imagine to be possible, and the liquidity gained by selling (hopefully) solves the debt and accessible savings problems (provided you don’t lose the proceeds in a bank run). Assets prices will fall because everywhere people will be trying to cash out, by selling not what they’d like to, but what they can. This means that all manner of assets will be offered for sale at once, and at a time when there are few buyers, this will push prices down to pennies on the dollar for many assets.

For those few who still have liquidity, it will be a time when there are many choices available very cheaply. In other words, if you manage to look after the proceeds from the sale of your former assets, you should be able to buy them back later from much less money. Of course flashing your wealth around at that point could be highly inadvisable from a personal safety perspective, and you may find that you’d rather hang on to your money anyway, since it will be getting harder and harder to earn any more of it. During the Great Depression, some of the best farms in the country were foreclosed up on and received no bids at auction, not because they had no value, but because those few with money were hanging on to it for dear life.

Being entirely liquid has its own risks, which is why I wouldn’t sell assets that insulate you from economic disruption if you didn’t buy them on margin (ie with borrowed money that you may not be able to pay back) and if you have enough liquidity already that you can afford to keep them. For instance, a well equipped homestead owned free and clear is a valuable thing indeed, whatever its nominal price. It is totally different from investment real estate owned on margin, where the point of the exercise is property price speculation at a time when doing so is disastrous.

One important point to note with regard to commodities is that commodities have already fallen along way since I first published the above list of suggestions. At that time, selling commodities was a very good idea, but now, since commodities are already down a very long way, it may depend on the commodity in question. If you only own commodities in paper form then selling is still a good idea in my opinion, as there are generally more paper claims than there are commodities, and excess claims will be extinguished. At some point soon I will write an intro on my view of energy specifically, since energy is the master resource. In short, we are seeing a demand collapse now, but eventually we will see a supply collapse, and it is difficult to predict which will be falling fastest at which times.

5) If you already have no debt and have liquidity on hand, I would strongly suggest that you try to gain some control over the essentials of your own existence. We live in a just-in-time economy with little inventory on hand. Economic disruption, as we are already seeing thanks to the problems with letters of credit for shipments, could therefore result in empty shelves more quickly than you might imagine. Unfortunately, rumours of shortages can cause shortages whether or not the rumour is entirely true, as people tend to panic buy all at once. If you want to stock up, then I suggest you beat the rush and do it while it’s still relatively easy. You need to try to ensure supplies of food and water and the means to keep yourselves warm (or cool as the case may be). Storage of all kinds of basic supplies is a good idea if you can manage it – medicines, first aid supplies, batteries, hand tools, wind-up radios, solar cookers, a Coleman stove and liquid fuel for it, soap etc.

At the moment, there are many things you can obtain with the internet and a credit card, but that will not be the case in the future. Water filters are a good example, as the quality of water available to you is likely to deteriorate. You can buy the kind of filters that aid agencies use oversees for all of about $250, with extra filter elements for a few tens of dollars at sites such as Lehmans Non-Electric Catalogue or the Country Living Grain Mill site.

6) Most people will not be able to get very far down this list on their own, which is why we suggest working with others as much as possible and pooling resources if you can bring yourself to do so. Together you can achieve far greater preparedness than you could hope to do alone, plus you will be building social capital that will stand you in good stead later on.

7) If you have already taken care of the basics, then you may want to put at least some of whatever excess you still have into precious metals (in physical form). Although the price of metals should still have further to fall, since distressed sales have not yet had an effect on price, obtaining them could get more difficult. Buying them now would amount to paying a premium price for an insurance policy, which may make sense for some and not for others. Metals will hold their value over the long term as they have for thousands of years, but you may have to sit on them for a very long time, so don’t by them with money you might need access to over the next few years.

Metal ownership may well be made illegal, as it was during the Great Depression, when gold was confiscated from safety deposit boxes without compensation. That doesn’t stop you owning it, but it does make ownership far more complicated, and makes trading it for anything you might need even more so. You could easily attract the wrong kind of attention and that could have unpleasant consequences. In short, gold is no panacea. Other options may be far more practical and useful, although there is an argument for having a certain amount of portable wealth in concentrated form if you should have to move suddenly.

8) Being worth more to your employer than he is paying you is a good idea at a time when unemployment is set to rise dramatically. This is not the time to push for a raise that would make you an expensive option for a cash-strapped boss, and in fact you may have to accept pay cuts in order to keep your job. During inflationary times, people can suffer cuts to their purchasing power year after year, but they don’t complain because they don’t notice that their wage increases are not keeping up with inflation. However, deflation brings the whole issue into the harsh light of day.

People would have to take pay and benefit cuts for their purchasing power to stay the same, thanks to the increasing value of cash, but keeping people’s purchasing power the same will not be an option for most employers, who will be struggling themselves. In other words, expect large cuts to pay and benefits. As unions will never accept this, for obvious reasons, since their membership has its own fixed costs, there will be war in the labour markets, at great cost to all. You need to reduce your structural dependence on earning anything like the amount of money you earn now, and don’t expect benefits such as pensions to be paid as promised.

9) Your health is the most important thing you can have, and most citizens of developed societies are nowhere near fit and healthy enough. Already medical bills are the most common reason for bankruptcy in the US, and while you can’t protect yourself against every form of medical eventuality, you can at least improve your fitness. You will be be living in a world where hard physical work will be much more prevalent than it is now, and most people are ill-equipped to cope. The solution Ilargi and I have chosen, as we have mentioned before, is the P90X home fitness programme. While it wouldn’t be the right choice for everyone, if I can do it, as I have for 11 months already, then most people can. For others, there are gentler options available, but everyone should consider doing something to make themselves as healthy and robust as possible.

We here at TAE wish you the best of luck at this difficult time. We will all need it.

These topics and many others are discussed in Nicole Foss’ new video presentation, Facing the Future, co-presented with Laurence Boomert and available from the Automatic Earth Store. Get your copy now, be much better prepared for 2014, and support The Automatic Earth in the process!