Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Muddling Toward Frugality – Part 1 of 2

From Warren Johnson
Covelo, Mendocino County
Muddling Toward Frugality -1978- Sierra Club
Extensive excerpts, with permission of the author
Part 1 | Part 2

In a remarkable book titled The Comedy of Survival, Joseph Meeker distinguishes between two types of heroes, the tragic hero and the comic hero. He describes them as they are depicted in classical literature, although we need not be restricted to this one source; it is a universal distinction.

The tragic hero is the one we have tended to honor; the one who is willing to risk everything for a goal he knows to be right, who is unswerving in defense of moral principle, and who is not hesitant to take on powers greater than himself. Yet different people see the same situation differently, and such single-minded zeal has led to wars in the past.

Today, terrorists who employ indiscriminate violence see themselves as risking their lives for a noble objective. It is this same mentality that is apt to challenge resource limits, rather than accept them. On top of all this, the tragic hero is usually an unpleasant individual to be with; he takes himself very seriously; he is unwilling to compromise; and he is condescending to anyone who disagrees with him.

In contrast, the comic hero is usually relegated to the status of buffoon—base and silly, although innocuous. His goal is simply to survive and to enjoy himself as best he can. He is unwilling to fight; instead, he tries to outwit his enemies and the authorities. His victories are small; survival and life are what are important to him; no cause could be worth dying for. The comic hero is friendly toward life and takes things as they are; life is an end in itself, rather than a struggle between right and wrong.

Meeker suggests that perhaps it is time that we honor these virtues. He argues that it is the comic hero who will better insure our survival—the human animal adapting to the world as it is and enjoying what it has to offer, rather than trying to make it over into something that it is not and cannot be.

It has been said that true heroism is to see the world as it is and love it. This would seem to be a valuable quality, and it may turn out to be the key to the successful adaptation to scarcity.

It may seem ironic to look on the stumblings of government as an asset in coming to terms with the future, but given the general resistance to change in any society, an inefficient government actually protects us from the dangers inherent in sustained economic growth to the point of overgrowth. Governmental inefficiency encourages—even forces—individuals to take their lives into their own hands, or in other words, to adapt.

Realistic planning that accepts the constraints of limited resources will be unpopular and resisted. Who will want to plan for stability or, worse yet, decline, especially after this period of our greatest power and influence? But when the struggle to prop up a way of life that is no longer practical becomes too great, a new economic orientation will emerge. It will receive the same reluctant commitment that Americans finally gave to the withdrawal from Vietnam; it will be preferable to more adverse economic and political reactions that threaten to tear the country apart.

Contrary to the lament of frustrated promoters of change, politicians will act, but not until the writing is so clearly on the wall that they and, more important, their constituents cannot miss it. Once this realization is reached, the world will be seen in a new way. At that point, we will be over the hump, and the political decisions that follow can be expected to be more of a help than a hindrance.

In the meantime, the inability of government to resolve the problems facing us will encourage individuals to think about ways to secure a safe niche for themselves, rather than relying on the government to take care of them. It is the prudent thing to do—to find a secure source of income, to get by with less, to protect children during their most vulnerable ages, and to avoid being trapped in a hazardous situation in old age. More and more individuals will develop cooperative arrangements with others to make life better and more satisfying.

The phrase “survival of the fittest” is correct only up to a point; beyond that it should be “survival of the most cooperative.” Richard Leakey makes this point very strongly in his book Origins, and demonstrates it by the progress early man made compared to his primate relatives.

Energy scarcity will be the major force that brings about a goal long sought by many people: economic decentralization. In the past, industrial operations became larger and larger as the falling costs of transportation enabled manufacturers to capitalize on the economies of scale offered by modern industrial processes. The savings accrued by large, efficient plants easily covered the additional transportation costs. This favored the rise of large corporations that had the capital to build huge plants and the distribution systems to get the vast production to nationwide and worldwide markets. With the advantage of cheap transportation and the savings from reduced labor requirements, the large manufacturing corporations were able to put a good part of their small competitors out of business.

But it is simply because these corporations were so well-suited to the past that they are likely to have problems in the future—and ultimately fail. Using machines, energy, raw materials, and transportation extensively, they will find that they are using all the wrong inputs, all those that will be increasingly expensive in the future, but not the relatively inexpensive input—labor. Just as important, their specialized, automated plants will provide little flexibility to adapt to changing conditions. Instead, as demand for their products sag, they will have to increase prices in order to cover fixed costs and to pay the interest on borrowed capital.

On the other hand, decentralized, regional firms will find themselves in an improving situation as they begin to undersell their corporate competitors. Located close to their customers, they will not be so affected by rising transportation costs. Using less sophisticated machinery, they will have much more flexibility to modify both their products and their inputs in response to changing markets. Not only is equipment expensive these days and likely to become more so, but with capital scarce, interest rates are high, magnifying further the cost of modern plants.

Most economists foresee an increasing scarcity of capital and higher interest rates. The way to avoid these costs is with the use of labor, the input that will be increasingly available at a reasonable cost and which decentralized firms will be in a position to take advantage of. One can imagine new firms reoccupying unused or derelict buildings and employing makeshift equipment to avoid the high costs of a new plant and sophisticated equipment… The vast sources of capital that have been available to large corporations will dry up very quickly when it appears that the big firms will not be as profitable in the future as they have been in the past.

People will begin to experiment with various forms of barter, cooperative arrangements among friends, and larger scale cooperative organizations—all designed to give people more control over their own lives. In the long run, as the momentum of modern economic society weakens, it can be expected that the market system will decline from the dominant position it has held since the eighteenth century and slowly be relegated to the subordinate place it has held in most societies—of facilitating the exchange of goods at the Saturday market, but not of ordering all of society.

Does this mean that Thomas Jefferson’s pastoral ideal—of independent farmers, craftsmen, and merchants in self-governing communities—is to become a reality? In many ways it does; this is one of the most encouraging ways to envision the result of the subsidence [now known as "energy descent"]…

The most recent effort to achieve the Jeffersonian ideal was the commune movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the vast majority of communes broke up quickly because of their inability to provide the integration and commitment necessary for any community to survive. Perhaps, the very nature of the process of moving toward frugality will work against the wish to return to the freedom of the frontier. The frontier was, after all, the wide-open niche, the niche that is now filling up. Even in the past it was a pretty lonely place; individualism itself has recently been termed “the pursuit of loneliness.”

Perhaps economic survival in the future will cause communities to pull together and to create common laws, “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon,” in Garrett Hardin’s phrase from The Tragedy of the Commons. Our passionately held individualism will have to give way to the practical realities of getting by without the surpluses that permitted us so much freedom in the past….

Ultimately, the issue comes down to a matter of individual responsibility. If we accept that our well-being depends on what we ourselves do—how well we cope with the changes that are occurring around us—rather than on what someone in government is presumably doing for us, things will go better. The people who go about the task of doing what they can to secure a safe, comfortable—if frugal—niche and who develop stable ties with family, friends, and community will be doing the right thing. In that way, politics will tend to become the small-scale, face-to-face process that Jefferson idealized.

Part 2

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