Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Muddling Toward Frugality – Part 2 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

More and more, the key to economic survival will be to learn how to get by with less income. There are many opportunities to make a modest income; they will become economically viable opportunities to the first people that are able to get by on the small income generated.

It is frugality that has allowed the Briarpatch Network, a group of small independent entrepreneurs doing what they want to do on reduced incomes, to flourish in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is also what has allowed the Amish to thrive and expand on small farms all during the period when most small farms were going out of existence. A low income is the heart of frugality.

It takes a highly motivated and creative person or family to undertake the risk of developing his own work while getting by with less and learning how to become more self-sufficient. For the first pioneers, it can be lonely and difficult work in unfamiliar territory. The frequently heard criticism that says these people are “dropouts,” and that they do not contribute their skills and energies to solving society’s problems, is totally wrong. They are doing a task that is essential for our future, developing new skills and ways of living that will provide models for others as necessity pushes more of us in that direction. Nothing could be more important. The pioneers are opening up new economic territory where subsequent settlers can join them.

The commune movement was a discouraging one, on the whole. The best that can be said for it is that it demonstrated a good deal about what was practical and what was not. It showed, most significantly that it is not possible to have the best of all possible worlds—combining togetherness, sharing, and simplicity with complete freedom in personal relationships and sexual matters, and asking for no sense of duty to stick out the hard times or to be on good terms with one’s neighbors. That vision of the good life, in which there were to be huge benefits at practically no cost, has, at least for the time being, been put to rest…

A better basis than communes for decentralized groups would seem to be communities—for example, a community organized under the auspices of an established organization. A community based on a known organization, philosophy, religious faith would be more apt to receive financial support and local acceptance. Bureaucracy has its usefulness too. Established organizations could better assure the continuity of the community and would be more likely to attract members from all parts of society than just the affluent young, the main group involved with the communes.

The Black Muslims and CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, have both developed cooperative economic activities in the south, since they concluded a long time ago that northern cities would never provide a good life for poor blacks. Cooperatives are also an attractive alternative to what is often experienced as the lonely and threatening world of commercial competition. Individuals with land or economic enterprises could work them cooperatively, if they felt strongly enough about the particular philosophical basis on which the cooperatives were organized.

Any alternatives that might evolve, whatever their form or function, will make a major contribution to the economy and to the choices available to people. If their numbers were to increase substantially, it is possible that the shortfall in jobs could be reduced, greatly easing the adjustment to scarcity.

But whatever their numbers, successful communities will be valuable additions to the range of models available to others in the future. New communities may have to struggle for a long time before getting firmly established, but this should not be held against them; it is characteristic of the muddling process. Such tasks are not easy and straightforward.

I am regularly surprised by the frequency of one specific response to the prospect of moving toward frugality. Many people freely express their own willingness to move toward a simpler way of life, but they do not believe others will do so. It is almost as if everyone else will somehow be immune to the pressures scarcity generates. The wealthy will somehow be able to hold on to their wealth and their position; the middle class will not accept a reduction in their affluence and easy life; the poor will not forego their chance to have what others now have. Government will somehow be able to keep taxes high no matter how much the economy declines; and labor unions will continue to jack wages up no matter how much unemployment there is, while corporations will continue to pull strings worldwide and maintain profits even if trade drops off. Perhaps this expectation is the basis for pessimism about the future; without economic change there would be little basis for personal change, and there would indeed be grounds for pessimism about the adjustment to scarcity.

Other powerful civilizations at their peaks must have seemed equally resistant to change, even more so. In the fourth century, Rome exercised complete control over most of western Europe; what could bring it down? In the fourteenth century, the long stability of medieval Europe must have seemed as if it would go on forever. The landed aristocracy in eighteenth-century England seemed unassailable since they controlled so much land, the major source of wealth. Yet all were severely weakened within a century. Nothing is immutable.

The only real question, as far as I am able to discern, is not whether we will move toward frugality, but whether we will move to it efficiently and peacefully. Violence will always be a possibility. But violence is a risky business; the consequences of failure for those undertaking it must be compared with the difficulties of adjusting to frugality, in the same way that the possible benefits (and risks) of a nuclear attack by the United States or Russia must be compared with the difficulties of continually living with an adversary armed with nuclear weapons. With resources, however, even if violence were somehow successful, it still would not bring back the era of resource abundance. From a number of points of view, violence is unlikely to be worth the risks involved…

The conditions that created this country were rare and unique—a wide-open continent and new technologies to exploit its resources. These conditions will not return; there is no way to recreate the frontier. The Industrial Revolution is ending, but we are left with its machinery. If our society is not to remain “an immense stamping press for the careless production of underdeveloped and malformed human beings,” in Robert Heilbronner’s phrase, it will be because individuals have abandoned their stations at the machines. The old order will become increasingly isolated.

As time passes and the age of expansion is clearly seen to be over, the social values it fostered will lose their power and usefulness. When opportunities abounded, it made sense to give up longstanding ties to family, friends, and community for something better elsewhere; those who stayed behind became lost in obscurity. With the economic stakes so high, it became worthwhile to put every last ounce of competitiveness into the process. With large-scale enterprise and rapid mobility came the anonymity that hid the shoddy producer, the exploiter, the huckster, even the criminal; with no effective community to resist, government had to be expanded to protect society. Individuals were left with little choice but to venture into the large-scale market economy and to try to achieve wealth and position, the primary measures of individual worth in such a society.

But as resources grow scarce, mobility declines, and decentralization occurs, all of this will slowly change. A new social logic will assert itself. Fewer resources will mean that sharing and cooperation will be functional if the frugal life is to be a good and full one. With less mobility and closer communities, it will not be necessary to rely on government so much for protection. It would be uncomfortable for a person to live in a small community if he or she had the reputation of being a miser, a cheat, a spreader of malicious rumors, or a thief. Small communities discourage such behavior. Loyalty, trustworthiness, generosity, and goodheartedness are more apt to be virtues by which an individual is known, and one’s good name will be important for full participation in the community.

In the future, there will be fewer opportunities for the exploitive self-centeredness so characteristic of present society. Now individual responsibility will be in one’s own self-interest. “As you sow, so shall you reap” will once again have real meaning. Those who contribute most to the enjoyment of life will be the most honored, rather than those who can take the most. Labor will once again be an act of love…

We have enough time to learn how to do things with our own hands once again, how to pull communities back together, how to raise our children, and how to allow our elders a useful and agreeable life. Although some of the changes will be awkward, many others will be challenging and fulfilling, and everywhere there will be opportunities for healthy work, new ties with family and friends, and activities to bring us closer to nature. If we do not succeed in making the adjustment, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Above all, it can be a good life. In effect, we will be exchanging the grand achievements of large-scale technological society for modest accomplishments on a more human scale. We will once again be a part of mankind’s great journey, no longer set apart from it and seeking to manipulate it like technological gods. We will regain a degree of stability that will permit the deepening of culture and the enrichment of lives lived simply.

Above all, we will have the comfort of knowing that our relationship with the environment is sustainable, and that the earth is a true home to us.

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