Friday, December 30, 2011

Marcin's summary of the GVCS project

From a recent post explaining what is desired from a project co-founder:
We are looking for a Co-Founder who is motivated intrinsically by higher purpose – as in Daniel Pink’s TED talk on the surprising science of motivation. This means someone who values: (1) autonomy – desire to drive one’s own life; (2) mastery – getting better at something that matters; and (3), purpose – yearning to do something in service to something much greater than oneself...

I suggest that the Co-Founder be a volunteer position, just like I am a volunteer. At factor e Farm, there are only volunteers – defined as people with intrinsic motivation who are not empoyees, but partners who are generating their own resources while working on a common vision of a post-scarcity society...

I am looking for a candidate nothing short of a movement entrepreneur – someone who uses technology as a digitally-savvy outsider to create new sources of power by mobilizing the voices of many. In our case, that refers to one who facilitates the transition to a distributive economy – by developing a kernel of essential open product design – distilled from the technical contributions of many. This means, first: a person who uses institutional power, but doesn’t get institutionalized. Second, it means someone who builds a movement, not a cult of personality – meaning a movement that distributes power – as opposed to concentrating it in a charismatic leader. Third, it means building for the long term – not creating an ephemeral internet meme.

The Co-Founder must be part of the deeper message that OSE is bringing to the world. We want to live the example – even in the early stages – of what the economy beyond artificial material scarcity would look like. Factor e Farm is such an experiment – and admittedly so – we are only now pulling out of pervasive material scarcity. In essence – the 21st century is a time where with the wise use of technology – people can regain the ability to follow their deepest pursuits – as opposed to trying to put bread on the table – as in today’s mainstream of artificial material scarcity. I clarify that I am not suggesting that the welfare state is the answer – but a state of affairs based on the highest human productivity and responsibility. I am talking about a state that returns to ideals such as those found in the early American experiment – a republic where individuals, their autonomy, responsibility – are respected. America (or fill in any country in which you reside) is losing its productivity on essential items, but creative solutions are around the corner to reinvent the local economy.

Therefore, the Co-Founder must be a generalist who enjoys the DIY ethic and is excited by participation in their own sustenance – by appreciating that such power is key not only to one’s own autonomy – but to autonomy in the greater world. Political implications are significant.

We want to empower individuals to unleash their creative and productive powers, and we want to lead by example. We are making a claim that the best solution to a robust economy comes from an interdisciplinary approach – one of intensifying the economic capacity of any community – by intensifying information density available to and used by any community – via access to open source enterprise. The limit of this is a complete economy – and therefore autonomy on the community scale. This is not free – it comes with individuals being reskilled and reconnected – to nature and their means of survival – as a deepest form of reconnection, as a form of checks-and-balances – between humans and nature – and between humans and other humans. The implication is that individuals, to be truly empowered – not at the cost of others or at the cost of nature – have to be connected as close as possible – to their means of survival.

The cost is not particularly high – as it should take 1-2 hours per day for an individual to provide their needs of survival. This involves mainly food production – as that is the main aspect of our survival that needs constant attention. The rest – housing, energy, and technology – are minor if these are provided by machines that follow lifetime design – and if these amchines are used with wisdom of not wasting resources. Thus, we are not returning to the toil of repetitive labor associated with production. The only remaining barrier to widespread adoption is merely social status – perceptions that physical labor is for peons. We believe instead that real work as such is honorable – as it builds character and provides autonomy.

We thus encourage that a person at Factor e Farm spend 1-2 hours per day on survival, and the rest can be devoted to higher purpose. We want to live this at Factor e Farm, even in our early days of today.

Do we? In a way – yes – in so far as all of us here spend all of our time pursuing higher purpose. At the same time, we are pioneers and startup entrepreneurs , so we ‘work’ all day. And we don’t have food and energy autonomy yet – so we haven’t proved the data point of 1-2 hours of work per day. However, each of us believes that we can achieve the post-scarcity condition rather readily, and that we can demonstrate a widely adaptable pattern that can be adopted by the rest of the world.

We lack the experience to know that this is impossible, and we have the experience that knows that we should try.

The point remains – that in order to be responsible, we want to engage in as much productive activity for survival as possible – and with appropriate tools – the cost of living goes to negligible. It is expected from Factor e Farm participants that they have a DIY ethic of engaging with their means of existence.

By developing further infrastructure tools – we aim to demonstrate that startup – of a productive farm, manufacturing operation, or whole community – would cost, say $100k, as opposed to $1M. And taken to the extreme, with division of labor and metal melting of steel from scrap – this cost goes down to $10k or so – while retaining industrial efficiency that allows for a modern standard of living – and about 10x more free time than the existing economy.

Mainstream beliefs dictate that specialization is a more efficient route, and we are experimenting to prove that flexible fabrication - is more efficient. Pure specialization is more efficient under certain condition of technological capacity and information access of a system in question. At the same time, the efficiency of specialization discounts the inefficiency of large scale at which trade occurs (mainly global geopolitics), and relies on the fallacy of per-capita wealth increase – where the reality is that the actual distribution of wealth is decreasing (ie, there is a larger relative number of destitute people today than at any time in history). Specialization is valid under the assumption of proprietary information and large capitalization costs. Open source reduces these barriers, allowing productive capacity on a smaller scale. How much smaller? We aim to demonstrate that a 200 acre nominal parcel can attain modern civilization (ie, the unprecedented requirement of 1-2 hours per day of labor for the populace, and pursuit of higher purpose in the majority of the time). This is the order of Factor e Farm. As Co-Founder, you are expected to respect this as the prime objective of the Factor e Farm – not in an abstract sense – but as a near-term (~3 year) objective – which includes the smelting of silicon and extraction of aluminum from clay as realistic, on-site processes.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Amish Agricultural Economics

From Amish Farming in Lancaster County
While farming was not an integral tenet of Anabaptism, agriculture has always been a major part of the Amish lifestyle. Believing that practical knowledge, hard work and long hours are the "technological marvels" that make farm life fruitful, the Amish in Lancaster, PA practice impressive levels of thrift and self-sufficiency, which they believe are mandated by the Bible. Farming is not merely a job or career; it is viewed as a way of life anchored in Scripture, blessed by God and handed down over the generations by Amish ancestors. It provides a seedbed for nurturing strong families in the values of hard work, frugality, responsibility, simplicity and family cooperation.

Horses are a trademark identity of the Lancaster Amish and their farming, used to plow, cultivate and harvest crops. Tractors are commonly used on Amish farms in Lancaster, PA, but only for power around the barn - to blow silage to the top of large silos, power feed grinders, spin ventilating fans and the like. They are not used for field work. Why the distinction? Over the decades since the invention of the tractor in the early 1920s, several versions were rejected for field use, most notably because of the fear that their self-propelled, mobile nature would surely lead to cars. Moreover, using horses in the fields helps to limit the size - and corresponding cost - of Amish farms, thereby promoting equality and protecting the small family farm. Horses also maintain a slower farming pace, preserving jobs that are the heartbeat of the Lancaster, PA Amish community.

Over time, additional farm equipment with independent powers sources (such as wagons, corn planters, plows and sprayers) was permitted on the fields to increase productivity, as long as it was adapted for horse-drawn use. Pulling such modern machinery with horses is a compromise that preserves the Lancaster Amish tradition and identity while allowing just enough progress for farmers to remain competitive....
Horse-drawn equipment became increasingly scarce after 1940, as more American farmers began using tractors. Consequently, several Amish mechanics opened machine shops to refurbish horse-drawn implements, and welders and mechanics began producing parts to repair the equipment. Taking a major turn, they also began buying equipment designed for tractors and adapting it for use with horses. Thus, somewhat ironically, the Amish in Lancaster, PA were nudged into business in order to preserve their horse farming in the face of a booming agriculture business enamored with tractors.

By the 1970s, making a living by farming was becoming more difficult. The increasing Amish population, coupled with decreasing farmland and higher prices, made getting started difficult or impossible for some. Others found the payments on the farm, building, loans, mortgages and interest a hardship. One alternative was to move to another area where farmland was available and cheaper. Others looked at ways to supplement their income by having a family member work out for others, sometimes on a carpentry crew, as a farmhand, or as a cleaning lady in homes of non-Amish. But of most concern to the Amish in Lancaster, PA was the concern of known as the "lunch pail" problem - the possible necessity of having to work in a factory. They were concerned about work that involved going outside the family and community for economic survival, fearing it could drive a wedge into the family and cause disruption.

A good compromise between farming and factories came to be in the 70s and 80s - that of Amish manufacturing shops and cottage industries. During this period of explosive business growth, Amish entrepreneurs ventured into industry within the Lancaster Amish community, then to non-Amish neighbors, then to tourists. Over the years, they have found that Amish industry has enriched community life. Work remains near the home, family members often work together, and financial resources are kept within the community. Moreover, Amish control eliminates Sunday sales, fringe benefits, adverse personnel policies and other influences that sometimes accompany factory employment.

Four types of Amish industries in Lancaster, PA consume much of work that is done away from the farm:
  1. Cottage industries located on farm or beside home: crafts, repair work, light manufacturing
  2. Large shops: farm machinery, lawn furniture, storage sheds, etc.
  3. Mobile carpentry and construction crews: contruct homes, install kitchens, build silos
  4. Retail stores: sell hardware, appliances, clothing, furniture, quilts and crafts for the PA Amish community, non-Amish neighbors and tourists

Word to the wise

Become Amish? One Amish writer responded this way, quoted in Small Farm Journal some years ago:

"If you admire our faith, strengthen yours. If you admire our sense of commitment, deepen yours. If you admire our community spirit, build your own. If you admire the simple life, cut back. If you admire deep character and enduring values, live them yourself."
From here.

Amish Farms

UC Small Farm Program on Amish Farming; from the website:
What could people with an eighth grade education possibly teach us about farming let alone life in a high-tech society?

Apparently a lot, if family and farm well-being in Amish communities are any indication. At a time when many conventional farmers across the US are in desperate financial straits, Amish farms are still making money and turning a profit with a cautious disregard for get-big-or-get-out modern technology and no participation in direct government subsidies, other than those built into market prices, which they can't avoid. In fact, the Amish have been exempted from paying Social Security tax, not because they don't want to pay taxes, but because they are opposed to accepting the benefits. They resist receiving money from the government for any reason....

Farming still remains today a way of life for the Amish, not a way to make a fortune so one can retire early and travel. Land is not bought for speculation, it is purchased forever. There is no pressure to pay off the mortgage in a short span of years. If it takes three generations to clear the mortgage, it is of little consequence- the farm is in the family to stay. There is a pity among most Amish for people who cannot live on or near farmlands.
Amish in the Driftless area make up 80% of Organic Valley's vegetable cooperative members (here)
While all the Amish farms are diversified—meaning they raise chickens, goats, hogs, and other crops—selling their vegetable crop to Organic Valley for a fair pay price has been a great source of stability for our neighboring Amish community. Providing healthy, delicious food to folks close to home is equally important.

Amish farms are small, devoting anywhere from two to four acres to veggies. The day’s work is divvied up over the family breakfast. No matter the season, daily chores always include animal care and feeding, milking cows, and collecting eggs. There is always water to be drawn, fires to be tended, and other general chores to see to, along with whatever seasonal work awaits.

Heavier chores are turfed to the toffee-colored, Belgian draft horses that plough and harvest crops and haul wood, produce, hay and lumber. Off-farm travel, which often includes meetings at nearby Organic Valley headquarters—is accomplished via buggies pulled by horses whose long legs and distinctive gait are compliments of their Standardbred roots. The Standardbreds are often crossed with Morgans for strength, durability and temperament.

The Amish

And of course, a budding fascination with the Amish, possibly the only example of a semi-subsistence people living within a fully developed market economy. Several things fascinate me the most about the Amish:
  1. The capacity of their way of life to resist the fragmenting effects of modernity (for example, as described here):
    The main factor behind the growth is simple: Big families and a high “retention rate.” Part of Amish culture calls for youth to make a conscious decision before they join the church and remain in the community and the Elizabethtown College researchers estimate more than 85% of children raised in the communities choose to remain Amish as adult.
  2. The way their preferences are shaped by their culture to wonderfully befuddle economic expecations
    ...a member wanted to purchase a round baler for hay, which enables a farmer to do hay solo. But some in the community felt that the team approach to hay is an important part of neighborliness and keeping community bonds strong. Eventually they allowed the baler, but only one farmer uses it. (and more examples from here)
  3. Their perpetuity on the margins of a mature economy; interesting critique of that here
    Many people view full employment as the primary purpose of society. It is a concept that animates much of the discussion in economics and politics. If full employment truly is the primary goal of our society, then we should follow the lead of the Amish. They have developed a social structure that provides full employment for every member. In fact, the problem is not too little employment, but too much employment. They have to have large families with many helping hands to absorb all of the employment that the lack of modern equipment affords them.

    Because they do not use tractors, they need many hands to plow, cultivate, and harvest the fields. Milking cows by hand is time-consuming manual labor. Shoveling manure by hand provides employment for some of the less fortunate members of the family. Cutting, transporting, and stacking wood for heat and cooking provides more work that can keep someone busy and sweaty for a considerable period of time.

    By being fairly self reliant, rather than maximizing the benefits of national and international divisions of labor, they choose to be less efficient and to perform activities that subtract from the time they can devote to what they do best. By shunning modern labor-saving devices and technologies — such as electricity, hay bailers, power equipment, and modern milking facilities — they choose to live with less of everything. Many fall within the modern definition of poverty. Nearly all use child labor. They would starve without it.

    Living with less is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe that most Amish people are very satisfied with their chosen lifestyle. Most do not regret the choices they made and find their lives quite rewarding. They are generally people of character who stand up for what they believe in, for the whole world to see.

    Should full employment really be the primary goal of modern society? The Amish live in an agrarian economy. It thrives in the midst of modern society, not because of inherent advantages, but rather because it borrows much more from that society than meets the eye.

    Most third-world countries are also agrarian societies, mired in a state of misery, reflecting the primitiveness of their economies. What they don't have, that the Amish in America do, is economic freedom, secure property rights, a well-developed system of trade, legal protections, fairly reliable money and access to the fruits of capitalist society. Yes, Amish do go to the store to purchase some things that make their lives simpler and more pleasant. They rely on cars and busses to transport them long distances. They use telephones when necessary. Trucks bring their milk to market.
The Amish will, I think, become a touchstone of this blog. And the series, "Amish: World's Squarest Teenagers, about 5 Amish kids on Rumspringa, will be my evening entertainment for the next few weeks. And after that, turning the tables and sending English kids to Amish country.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Peasants as a "Sack of Potatoes"

Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family, beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homonymous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name...
- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852)

Of course, potatoes are an incredibly versatile and resilient food source. You can also drop one just about anywhere and it will become a potato plant. It is seed and food in one. That's self-sufficiency.

I do sometimes wonder if the peasant model isn't a rather poorly-developed economic ecology compared to a large, mature, diversified market. More like a field of annual weeds than a biomass and biodiversity-rich forest, for example. More resilient for its modularity and simplicity, but not affording the same capacity for energy storage, diversification, or the sustenance of large and glorious top-of-the-food-chain projects (like a tiger, for example, or a lunar landing).

new website thoughts

Neosubsistence Economics
"In search of the theoretical sweet spot"

Available domain names:
newpeasant.com
newpeasantry.com
peasanteconomist.com
neosubsistence.com
freepeasant.com

Breaking down the economics of subsistence and survival

Three needs for a sustainable neosubsistence lifestyle:
(1) Capital to form a buffer against disaster
(2) Technology to ease the physical hardship of subsistence
(3) Power in relation to adversarial forces, whether those forces be political, social, military, or economic in nature

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Today's Research Notes

Google search for "subsistence economics":
  • Population Research Institute on 'Full Development' vs. 'Subsistence'
    The essence of subsistence is that men produce at a very low technological level. Moreover, subsistence economic activity is geared toward producing the minimum necessary to keep people alive. Surplus is sold to buy what people cannot make for themselves, to pay taxes, and service consumer debt. People attempt to save in order to acquire productive assets out of what is left. Reliance on past savings to form capital, though not restricted to subsistence economies, is inevitably linked to subsistence, want and need...

    Other characteristics of subsistence economics are 1) restricted ownership, such as ownership of an elite class of landowners or the state 2) corporate and political corruption 3) hard class lines, and 4) widespread envy as a social and political motive...

    There are four characteristics of the fully developed economy. These are: 1) widespread ownership of capital 2) free and open markets 3) private property, and 4) limited economic power of the state...

    The disconnect between people and full economic development is the result of inhibitions that prevent widespread ownership of capital. The result is poverty. Widespread ownership of capital is an absolute mandate for a fully developed economy because capital produces the majority of goods and services in developing and developed economies.

    Historically, dysfunction between population growth and participation in economic growth (widespread poverty in the midst of plenty) is the result of the way that capital formation has been financed. In developing economies, ownership of new instruments of capital has been closed to most people. As inadequate and self-defeating as the strategy ultimately becomes, having more children remains the only means to increase wealth. Ownership, on the other hand, naturally includes participation in greater production, and thus includes greater income resulting from the employment of productive capital...

    In a subsistence economy, income is generated by human labor. In a developing economy, by capital. As technology advances, human labor becomes less competitive with capital, and consequently less valuable as an input to production. Where people are restricted to gaining income solely from wages, more and more people in a family must obtain wage system jobs in order to secure a declining amount of income.
    Of course, it's painfully obvious once you see it that as fertility drops, consumption increases. Resource needs per household actually rise.
  • Book: Tony Waters, The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: life beneath the level of the marketplace, 2007
  • Book: Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1991
  • Article: Tony Waters, Farmer Power: The continuing confrontation between subsistence farmers and development bureaucrats
  • Research Report: Abele & Frohberg, Subsistence Agriculture in Central and Eastern Europe: How to Break the Vicious Circle?, 2003

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bushels


Wikipedia says:
  • 1 U.S. bushel = 8 corn/dry gallons = 2150.42 cu in ≈ 35.2391 litre ≈ 9.30918 wine/liquid gallons. The original definition was the volume of a cylinder 18.5 in (46.99 cm) in diameter and 8 in (20.32 cm) high, which gives an irrational number of cubic inches, but later this bushel was redefined as 2150.42 cubic inches, about 1 part per million less.
  • 1 Imperial bushel = 8 Imperial gallons ≈ 36.3687 dm³ ≈ 2219.36 cu. in.
  • 1 bushel = 4 pecks
  • 4 bushels = 1 coomb
Use as unit of weight

Bushels are now most often used as units of mass or weight rather than of volume. The bushels in which grains are bought and sold on commodity markets or at local grain elevators, and for reports of grain production, are all units of weight.[2] This is done by assigning a standard weight to each commodity that is to be measured in bushels. These bushels depend on the commodities being measured and the moisture content. Some of the more common ones are:
  • Oats
    • USA: 32 lb = 14.5150 kg
    • Canada: 34 lb = 15.4221 kg
  • Barley: 48 lb = 21.7724 kg
  • Malted barley: 34 lb = 15.4221 kg
  • Shelled maize (corn) at 15.5% moisture by weight: 56 lb[2] = 25.4012 kg
  • Wheat at 13.5% moisture by weight and soybeans at 13% moisture by weight: 60 lb[2] = 27.2155 kg
Other specific values are defined (and those definitions may vary within different jurisdictions, including from state to state in the United States) for other grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, coal, hair, and many other commodities.

Government policy in the United States is to phase out units such as the bushel and replace them with metric mass equivalents.

The name "bushel" has also been used to translate non-US units of a similar size and sometimes shared origin, like the German "Scheffel".

History

The bushel was originally a measure of capacity for grain. During the Middle Ages, the bushel of wheat was supposed to weigh 64 tower pounds, but when the tower system was abolished in the 16th century, it was described as 56 avoirdupois pounds. The bushel was rarely used in Scotland, Ireland or Wales during the Middle Ages.

Farm Tech

Visited Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry yesterday. Highlights from the "Farm Tech" exhibit:
  • One massive combine
  • One massive tractor
  • Promotional videos for both which included the following facts:
    • 1 farmer in 1930 could harvest 100 bushels of corn in an 8-hour day, 1 combine in 2000 could harvest 10,000
    • 1 farmer in 1930 could plant 6 acres of corn in a day, 1 farmer in 2000 could plant 130 acres
    • 1 farmer today can feed 129 people
  • An exhibit extolling the wonderful conditions breeding pigs live in, including the absolute sterility of the indoor, climate-controlled conditions and the fact they have enough room to "move back and forth" and "spread out their legs"
  • An exhibit on hydroponics that boasted of its ingenuity in avoiding "contaminating soil" altogether
  • An exhibit on farm-based biogas that was actually pretty cool
Overall, the exhibit could be characterized as a half-acre of promotional propanganda for industrial agriculture. The aesthetics were decidely commercial, with far more plastic and steel than natural (or even natural-looking) objects, and far more primary than earthy colors. The cockpit of the combine was a good ten feet above the ground. The distance between the industrial farmer and nature was frightening.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Today's Research Notes

Upcoming PDF book: The Economics of Self-Sufficient Communities
or The Revenge of the Super-Empowered Peasantry

Today's Google Research:
  • Economics and Self-Sufficiency - Wes Jackson on self-sufficiency in Russian factory towns
    The Siberian welder and his family with his garden, pig, and chickens have more to say about a sustainable future than anything the web has to offer. This is not an argument that we should empty our cities but rather that we do get more people back on the land in small places, the small communities, and that essentially everyone in the cities be respectful of, if not connected to, one or more farmer in the local countryside. In our educational efforts of the young it is an argument for teaching the basics about our source. By that I don't mean microeconomics but rather important processes like photosynthesis and the energetics of material recycling.
  • Sand pile dynamics
  • Black Swans
  • Russ Roberts is a free trade, Hayek-ian economist who writes that self-sufficiency is a path to poverty
  • Debate between Russ Roberts and Bill McKibben on "Buy Local" economics, including audio
  • Bill McKibben - books of interest include Hope, Human, and Wild, and Deep Economy
  • Economic Impacts of Increasing Hawaii's Food Self-Sufficiency (2008) - PDF
  • Autarky - the risks of which are frequently stated

Friday, December 16, 2011

Paramount needs for a long-term resilient community

  1. Stable population
  2. Laws or norms that prevent the subdivision of land among heirs
  3. Zero net loss to soil fertility and ecosystem services
  4. Renewable energy and cradle-to-cradle manufacturing
  5. Sufficient capital accumulation to sustain human productivity and community morale
  6. Security through military strength, or through ties of trade or loyalty

"The Economics of Peasant Farming" (2nd ed. 1965) - Major Takeaways

Doreen Warriner
  1. Overpopulation can mean either (a) agricultural production doesn't keep pace with an increase in population, or (b) there is labor redundancy on the land; the first causes starvation, the second drives down wages and creates poverty (less disposable income for manufactured goods)
  2. There is a big difference between well-capitalized commercial farming and poor subsistence farming, even at the peasant level; the first results from access to accumulated capital and to markets, to develop their land more intensively and effectively sell the excess
  3. Peasants are well-off in industrialized nations with high tariffs to prevent competition from cheap foreign producers
  4. So, a low rate of capital investment + a high rate of population growth = trouble
  5. But high rates of capital investment need the accumulated capital from industrialization, and industrialization depends on the "development" of natural resources; only in one place does she mention the potential limits to this:
    From the general economic standpoint, migration is the most desirable solution... If the whole world was over-populated, the problem would be a different one. But there is no reason for thinking that it is. (p198)
  6. Fertility of the soil depends on the right balance of livestock to land, because of manure
  7. Peasant farms are better for soil fertility because peasants take the longer view of time
  8. Peasant farms make better use of surplus labor: more people employed per hectare, and more evenly throughout the year
  9. Peasant farms accumulate capital as households but tend to invest it all in their farms, so there are too few sources of pooled capital to invest in industrial projects like mechanization or irrigation
  10. The Russian solution was to collectivize and capitalize farms, guaranteeing cheaper food for the industrial proletariat in order to drive rapid industrialization, while increasing the productivity of peasants without increasing their incomes, with the thought that eventually the prices of manufactured goods would come down and the purchasing power of peasants would increase as a result; this did not happen
  11. A sustainable rural population averages between 50-100 people and 30-70 cattle per 100 hectares (including woodlands?); the average farm size necessary to support a family is 15-20 acres (including woodland?); 1 hectare per person is considered a minimum subsistence level; I don't know if this means simply for food or for enough profit for an adequate standard of living, as well; to be well-off, each farming family should be able to feed three families, including themselves
  12. On the distributed economics note:
    The Polish government has followed a policy of industrial dispersion, in consequence of which peasants in the SE region have benefited by the expansion of the new industrial centre of Krakow, round the new steel works in the suburb of Now Huta, which houses some of the recruits to industry... Movement into industry largely takes the form of daily migration from the countryside by small farmers or members of their families. In the mid-fifties 'peasant-industrial workers' were estimated to number between 900,00 and 1,200,000 in Poland as a whole. In 1960 there were estimated to be 400,000 such workers in Krakow voivodship alone, in a population of 2.3 million. They are the best off among the industrial workers, since the farm, even if small, provides a secure food supply; the wages earned by the commuting members of the family provide cash for consumption goods, and also for new farm equipment and building...nearly half the peasant families in the SE region derived some income from industrial employment, and one quarter of them derived oer 60% of their income from off-farm earnings...it is cheaper to provide double decker railway cariages for them than to build more new urban housing...commuting makes the best of two bad jobs, because industrial wages are low, food dear and urban housing hard to get... so in these regions industrialization does to some extent absorb the surplus, including the part-time workers and the seasonal slack (pxx-xxii)
  13. On seasonal variation:
    If, that is to say, the annual labour requirements of a farm are 270 man-days throughout the year, then one man can do the work, but if the man-days must be worked during three months, then three men will be needed...if all the workers are unemployed for hafl the year, it does not follow that half the workers are surplus, though some of them may be. The real surplus consists of thos workers who are employed only for a short period in the peak season, and who could work throughout it, if they had larger farms, or could find work on other farms. (pxxvii)
  14. And a note of caution for the standard ag development line:
    In those under-developed countries where the race between population and agricultural production today is a far grimmer reality than it was in the old E. Europe, the use of the concept of surplus labour as a starting point for development plans is definitely dangerous, since it may bias policy off the right approach, the need for increasing food output. (pxxx)
  15. And finally, on the issue of land:
    So far as land reform is concerned, the more I have seen of countries still dominated by landlordism, the more convinced I am that peasant farming offers better conditions of employment than large estates. (pxxxi)
  16. Her conclusion was either that the agrarian countries must industrialize, or their populations must migrate [both of which, I note, are temporary solutions]
  17. The sustainable solution (my thought) seems to be: family limitations + well-organized = well-off. The first should be voluntary or enforced solely by social norms, and is to keep population pressure off the land, and the second is to ensure adequate capital accumulation (e.g., via cooperatives) for infrastructure improvements

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Definitions of "peasant"

Brittanica
any member of a class of persons who till the soil as small landowners or as agricultural labourers. The term peasant originally referred to small-scale agriculturalists in Europe in historic times, but many other societies, both past and present, have had a peasant class.

The peasant economy generally has a relatively simple technology and a division of labour by age and sex. The basic unit of production is the family or household. One distinguishing characteristic of peasant agriculture is self-sufficiency. Peasant families consume a substantial part of what they produce, and while some of their output may be sold in the market, their total production is generally not much larger than what is needed for the maintenance of the family. Both productivity per worker and yields per unit of land are low.

Peasants as a class have tended to disappear as a society industrializes. This is due to the mechanization of farming, the resulting consolidation of farming plots into larger units, and the accompanying emigration of rural dwellers to the cities and other sites of industrial employment. The small-scale agriculture associated with peasant labour is simply too inefficient to be economically viable in developed countries.

wiki
A peasant is an agricultural worker who generally works land owned or rented by/from a noble. The peasant was bound to the land and could not move or change their occupation unless they became a yeoman (free person), which generally happened by buying their freedom. The peasant also generally had to give most of their crops to the noble.

First application of the peasant economics research

In Survival Podcast Episode-802- Permaculture Misconception vs. Reality (@29m45), Jack Spirko talks about reducing the size of the average farm so the average farmer can make a living on 40-80 acres like they used to. Currently, farmers with a thousand acres might earn $25,000 including subsidies. Permaculture would mean growing 4 acres of premium corn and lots of other things, as well, and earning a decent living doing it. Jack states that the farmer would have to hire people to pick instead of using machinery, which would cost more but be good for the economy and make a more sustainable local economy.

Theory from the research on the economics of peasant farms:
  • This will drive food prices up
  • which will decrease the purchasing power of wages in other sectors
  • but will probably drive wages up in those other sectors due to less competition for jobs
  • which may decrease activity in those other sectors
  • but either way it will provide more employment on the land
  • which will encourage migration out of other sectors and back to agriculture and into the countryside (this would be true in the U.S., now, since rural areas are now so sparsely populated, whereas in the Old World the same dynamic would have checked the initial migration into industrial employment and encouraged people to stay on the land)
  • BUT, it's possible we've reached a tipping point where we can no longer depend on ongoing industrial growth and need to move people back into the country to take up the surplus labor from the city
  • ALSO, the farmer may not have to hire a bunch of laborers for harvest, because he will have the labor necessary on site to handle the harvest, as 4 acres of corn is not an overwhelming amount and sufficient labor can be kept employed the rest of the year at other tasks due to the diversity of on-farm operations; e.g. livestock, forestry, fiber, homestead activities (fixing the roof), etc.
Jack also suggests people start producing 10-25% of their own food locally, so farmers don't have to make as much for us.

So what would it mean to move people back into agriculture?

It might look like this:

Agriculture would need to become more labor intensive if more people were to be employed farming. To have stable employment on the land, you would need a diversified family farm-type model, otherwise you will need large labor inputs at particular times which means a large demand for migratory labor, which is problematic. A diversified family farm would likely result in better soil fertility and higher yields - along with more work but the work would be spread more evenly throughout the year. More farm income would be re-invested back into individual farms, which traditionally prevented capital accumulation, but chances are good that industry is well-enough developed at this point that capital would still exist for useful large-scale infrastructure projects, though on credit. Cooperatives could play a strong role in this if we'd rather keep creditors, the state, and large-scale capitalist agribusiness out.

The price of food would go up but wages in all other sectors would also go up due to less labor competition in other sectors. This would be the inverse of the scenario Doreen Warriner demonstrates in her book. Probably the price of food would rise more than wages, so the proportion of income a family spent on food would increase. The consumer would be paying for farm biodiversity and soil conservation. Some of the additional costs of labor-intensive agriculture, however, would be defrayed by the fact that the farmer would also be providing for more of their own needs, due to the availability of their own labor during the down periods of the farm cycle. In other words, they would need less disposable income because they could be growing and making more of their own stuff, or via a cooperative enterprise (e.g., a community-owned biogas plant for transforming farm waste). A diversity of on-farm enterprises would also create economic resilience for individual farms.

Support for this theory from Warriner: In the scenario (c. 1939) where Western European tariffs were removed, Eastern European wheat would come in at half the cost (I assume the equilibrium would be reached for both at around 75% the pre-tariff cost)...
In Western Europe the industrial population would gain through cheaper food, but would find the adjustment in the labour market through the influx of labor from the land a very serious one...Free trade inside Europe would inevitably mean a big displacement of labour in the West. (p197)
We can assume that the original decrease of food costs as a result of large-scale mechanization had a comparable impact on the population of the U.S., sending many farmers into the industrial labor pool. We need only reverse this pattern to see that sending people back out of the industrial labor pool and onto farms would have the opposite effect of increasing food costs and decreasing labor competition. Food prices go up, wages go up. In fact, in the foreward, she notes the reversal that came as a result of Eastern Europe becoming a net importer of grain in the years between 1939-1964:
So the priorities of 1939 are now reversed. Then industrial development was the first; now it is increased food production. The movement of population into industry creates a demand for food which agriculture cannot supply, partly for lack of capital, and partly for lack of incentive.
A big potential issue affecting the livelihoods of the new small farmers, however, would be land ownership. If the massive tracts of land currently owned by agribusiness were rented out, or if farmers were hired on as independent contractors working a chunk of land in a way that's dictated by the landowners, you would have virtual serfdom. The landowners could charge enough to make farming anything but lucrative. Farmers would need to own their land for this to work well. It's the difference between the Bulgarian peasants (land-owning, organized) and the Hungarian peasants (landless, disorganized) in the 1930s. It's hard to imagine this working in the U.S. without some sort of land reform, which is tough to imagine at all. Even in an era of smaller-scale farming (due to peak oil or what-have-you), the large land-owning agribusiness giants could easily turn into something like feudal lords.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Terry Jones' Medieval Lives: The Peasant



Terry Jones talks about the value of the political education that comes from organizing locally to deal with localized issues (~8m).

More on human capital

"...it is far from being a liquid asset, even more illiquid than shares and land. He does not sell his skills, but contracts to utilize those skills, in the same way that an industrialist sells his produce, not his machinery. The exception here are slaves, whose human capital can be sold, though the slave does not earn an income himself." ~wiki

Different types of capital assets

Physical capital - or just 'capital' refers to any already-manufactured asset that is applied in production, such as machinery, buildings, or vehicles. In economic theory, physical capital is one of the three primary factors of production, also known as inputs in the production function. The others are natural resources (including land), and labor — the stock of competences embodied in the labor force. "Physical" is used to distinguish physical capital from human capital (a result of investment in the human agent)) and financial capital. Often used to mean fixed capital.

Fixed capital - not used up in the creation of a thing. Karl Marx emphasizes that it is really purely relative, i.e. refers only to the comparative rotation speeds (turnover time) of different types of capital assets. Fixed capital also "circulates", except that the circulation time is much longer, because a fixed asset may be held for 5, 10 or 20 years before it has yielded its value and is discarded for its salvage value.

Circulating capital - short-lived items that are used in production and used up in the process of creating other goods or services; includes raw materials, intermediate goods, inventories, ancillary operating expenses and (working capital). Contrasted with fixed capital.

Liquid capital - or fluid capital, a readily convertible asset, such as money or other bearer economic instruments, as opposed to a long term asset like real estate

Financial capital - money (the most fluid capital)

Human capital - the stock of competencies, knowledge and personality attributes embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value. It is the attributes gained by a worker through education and experience. [1] Many early economic theories refer to it simply as workforce, one of three factors of production, and consider it to be a fungible resource -- homogeneous and easily interchangeable. "...up to a point, consumption is investment in personal productive capacity." ~W. Lewis

Monday, December 12, 2011

Conditions under which peasants can attain a good standard of living (c. 1930s, E. Europe)

The best peasant villages in Transdanubian Hungary are those of the German settlers. In the Bakony hills, in counties Tolna and Baranya, these have achieved a good standard, dependent, as in the Banat, on large farm units and family limitation for some generations back. They carry more live stock to the hectare than the big farms, but cultivate land equally well. They are well organized in milk co-operatives... Farms in these villages average 15 hectares in size, the original unit of settlement in the eighteenth century. Such farms keep 2 horses, 2-3 cows, 2-3 young cattle to feed to a weight of 500 kgs, 6-7 pigs for fattening to a weight of 100-150 kgs, selling 3 or 4 and eating the rest. In addition, they sell milk and eggs. Little corn is sold, usually only a few quintals of wheat. Some of the larger peasants, with farms of 25 hectares, specialize in lucerne production for seed and in horse and cattle breeding. Lucerne is the basis of their field system, taking one-third of the area, and has increased in recent years.

The good standard of living in both these regions, it is apparent, depends on live-stock farming; on the maintenance of fairly large peasant famrs, i.e. of at least 15 acres in size; and on a low population density due to rapid industrialization.

Thus the conditions under which peasants can attain a good standard of living are as follows:

1. Corn yields of 15-20 quintals per hectare.
2. A cattle density of 30 to 60 per 100 hectares.
3. A farm population density of 50-55 to the 100 hectares

This combination of factors of production gives a corn output of 20-30 quintals per head and a meat output of 5-9 quintals per head; the total output of corn, meat, and milk per head amounts to 25 quintals in Hungary, 50 in Bohemia.
~p109, The Economics of Peasant Farming, Doreen Warriner, 1939

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Marie Mies on capital accumulation and unpaid subsistence labor

The issue was: what does housework mean in capitalism? Why isn't this work seen as work? Why isn't it paid? Why is it non-paid labor? We recognized that in capitalism this work can't be paid, because if it were, the accumulation model would collapse...

And then we discovered...that the small farmers' work also has something to do with housework and both have something to do with the work in the colonies. Then this concept emerged, as all three of us were in the Third World for extended periods. I was in India for many years, my two friends were in Latin America, and so we realized: if entire countries hadn't been exploited as colonies for long periods of time, then there wouldn't be any capitalism. And if they were treated equally today, all of the work in the "colonies" - I still call them "colonies" - well, then there wouldn't be much to accumulate. And that's why we call all of these relations colonial relations. The man-woman relationship is colonial, the relationship between the small farmer and industry is also colonial, and naturally, the colonial relationships between metropolises and colonies are definitely colonial.

...with these activities - even if they take place at a very low level - people rediscover their sovereignty, their own authority to produce their lives, as we call it. That is no shortcoming, it is something very positive to discover, that we are entirely capable of collectively producing and organizing our lives together, with others. Naturally, you also need money. I don't want to deny that at all, but exclusively working for money is not the best thing - that is only one side of it. The other is that subsistence production, or subsistence orientation, satisfies needs in a much more comprehensive way than purchased products ever could.

- from P2P

The economics of neosubsistence vs. traditional subsistence

Traditional subsistence farming communities that are not connected to an industrial economy nearly always become poor and destitute, as a result of pressure on the land from a growing population. At its worst, this leads to starvation when once-adequate household farms are subdivided over and over again for generations of heirs until the acreage of individual farms becomes insufficient for subsistence. Long before the worst, the diminished farms fail to provide a significant disposable income, and people, though well-fed, are poor for lack of manufactured goods. Where there is an industrial town or city nearby, the excess population can migrate as industrial labor.

I tend to think that agricultural development policies often function to force people off land into towns as cheap labor for industry. On reflection, it is possible that in the absence of an industrial economy, rural standards of living would decrease indefinitely toward a state of degradation. If population remained static, this would not need to be the case, and before high mortality rates were arrested by modern medicine and sanitation, perhaps there was more stability in peasant farming communities, though De____'s accounts of starving masses of peasants in old Europe suggests otherwise.

The problem with industrializing an economy as a solution, of course, is that most industrial activity currently practiced is unsustainable, predicated on endless growth, and so if growth stalls, or turns negative, the urban population faces unemployment or depressed wages. As we are likely reaching unsurmountable supply constraints to industrialization (exhausted oil supplies, etc.), I believe there is a real risk of indefinitely-stalled growth. Where does the excess population go when the cities fail to absorb them? Even if population levels stabilize, exhausted supplies (and political instability) may make our current model of industrialization--specialized mass production coupled with lengthy supply lines--untenable.

In economic terms, industrialization creates externalities in the form of pollution and depleted common-pool resources (natural capital).

How does neosubsistence differ?

Marcin defines neosubsistence as such:
"Neosubsistence: The combination of advanced material and information technologies introduces a new economic option that we call neosubsistence. This is modern day means to livelihood where wise use of advanced technology and ready access to information allows one to spend a small amount of time in self-sufficiency production. This leads to a high quality of life where higher skill provides more resources in-house, reduces the need to 'work to make a living,' and opens up time for other pursuits. It is a route to promoting a bioregional economy, which relies more on its own resources rather than uncontrollable global market forces. This promotes accountability and reduces the necessity of war."

Thoughts:

Suburbia was perhaps the first attempt at neosubsistence. I have old pamphlets from the thirties and forties describing food production on quarter and half acre lots, directed toward the early car-owning ex-urbanite. But suburbia not only chose lawns over chickens and orchards, but turned out to have serious externalities: rapid exhaustion of oil supplies, congestion, community fragmentation, pollution. The infrastructure required to sustain the suburban project is a grossly inefficient use of capital which requires a constant inflow of new capital to operate.

In effect, the updated rendering of neosubsistence as offered by Marcin and currently bandied about the DIY community appears in the context of (a) the information age, and (b) the promise of flexible manufacturing at the household or village level. Is it possible that these innovations could re-empower independent, subsistence lifestyles? Birth a new movement of superempowered peasants? If industry can occur at a smaller, more local scale, minus the oil use, the congestion, the pollution, and with a renewed emphasis on community cohesion--could we have our proverbial cake and eat it, too? Can we accumulate the necessary capital to empower farming households, and could we absorb the excess labor on site as it's liberated by the increased productivity of agriculture brought by capitalizion? And, of course, can trade and cooperation be adequately facilitated over distance by the internet?

Some key terms here:

Flexible fabrication
Community capital
Networked communities

Friday, December 9, 2011

"the liquidation of the peasantry"

Doreen Warriner uses this phrase to describe the effects of inclosure on the English peasants, which was to force them out of a subsistence lifestyle and into the industrial workforce. Resources (people) that were tough to move around were rendered flexible by political force. Flexible labor inputs were freed up to accompany the increase in capital to bring an increase in production.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ronald Wright's Massey Lectures:

Jumping off point on youtube:



"Farming increased quantity, but not quality...results in famine." (part II #3)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Capital accumulation - a thought experiment 3

Part 1
Part 2

So how does labor result in capital accumulation?

You are a hunter-gatherer living in the forest 10,000 years ago. When you wake up in the morning, you have approximately 16 hours before you go to sleep again, which is your available time per day to do things, to labor. The amount of work you put into anything can be thought of as a product of the amount of time you spend on it and the amount of effort you put into it. LABOR = TIME * EFFORT. For simplicity, let's say that effort is simply the energy, in calories, that you expend doing the work.

(Preview of coming attractions: PRODUCTIVITY = LABOR * CAPITAL... a product of how hard you work and your training, available tools, etc.)

Only once you have done everything you need to do to ensure your survival until the next day can you move on to other things. Your labor is first and foremost dedicated to your immediate survival, after which you move on to ensuring your ongoing survival to the best of your ability. Immediate needs include not starving, not freezing, not being eaten by a tiger, and so on. These tend to be reactive. Ensuring your ongoing survival means expending additional effort to proactively plan for ensuring these needs are met in the future. This might mean laying (or making) a trap line, gathering storable tubers, building a hut, or tanning a hide.

Let's consider this in terms of stocks and flows. Your basic needs are a stock that needs to be kept at a certain level to ensure your immediate survival, and your labor is the inflow which maintains this basic level of stock. Labor is also an outflow, in that work takes energy--you get energy from the food you work to procure, and spend some of that energy procuring food. Generally it more than pays for itself, which results in surplus. The difference between how much energy it takes you to procure food and how much energy the food gives you is the first labor surplus, a surplus of energy.

CALORIES GAINED FROM PREY - CALORIES EXPENDED DURING HUNT = ENERGY SURPLUS


If you're below the line here, you're in trouble, and aren't going to live for very long. If you're above the line, however, you have your first bit of extra energy which can be used for another activity. What are you going to do with it?

Option A: Build a better spear
Option B: Build a hut
Option C: Learn a cool dance move to impress a potential mate

Which you decide to do depends on which option you think is most useful and how secure you feel in your current predicament. If you're just barely coming out ahead, and your main problem is that you're sleeping outside and burning a lot of calories trying to stay warm, you might want to build a hut. If your main problem is that it took you ten throws before your spear pierced a deer, you might want to build a better spear. Either way, unless you're feeling pretty secure in your ability to consistently procure more calories than you expend procuring them, you're not likely to be focusing on cool dance moves.

Now, consider the scenario in which you decide to build a better spear. You now have two spears. If you don't want to be carrying both of them, you might decide to give the old one to your hunting buddy, who broke his last week. Two things just happened here:
1. your surplus of energy resulted in net capital accumulation for your little hunting society, which benefits both of you by (a) getting your buddy back in the game quicker, (b) getting your buddy back in the game quicker...the first for his sake and the second for yours

2. your buddy now owes you one. He may use some of his surplus energy sometime down the line to teach you a cool dance move.
This is net social capital accumulation. It occurs when your society captures the surplus value from work. The spear is the product of the energy of your labor and the materials used in its construction. Your surplus energy resulted in an extra tool. How valuable it is depends on not just on the time you spent making it but on how well it's made (skill, or human capital). Once brought into existence by your flow of labor, this tool increases your stock slightly above the level needed for bare survival, and frees up a bit of time for something other than spearmaking to occur. It also provides a buffer against disaster, in that if your new spear breaks, your buddy still has one (or if you kept it, you have an extra), and this can be all the difference in tiding you over till you get a new one.

To be continued...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Farm productivity (point of clarity)

Sustainable farming has the capacity to be more productive per acre, but will generally be less productive per farmer. Resource (land) productivity goes up while labor productivity goes down.

What's the sense in pursuing any other way of farming when we have so many unemployed? (Duh, increased labor competition = decreased labor wages.) It's asinine. And does sustainable, labor-intensive farming need to be miserable? That's the argument. I would guess no. I'll be developing this more in my series on capital accumulation.

Capital accumulation - a thought experiment 2

Part 1
Part 3

The traditional categories of economic inputs are labor and capital. To understand how capital accumulates we need to look at labor. Both begin with energy. Energy on earth comes from the sun, in the form of heat and light. Heat and light make plants grow, which feed animals, all of which feed and clothe humans.

Labor is our conversion of the sun's energy into work--e.g., we consume calories which plants and animals have made using sunlight, and then we use those calories as fuel to move about and do things. I prefer to think of capital as the accumulated mass of stuff that is the result of work. How this stuff is owned and distributed is one thing, but at its most basic level, capital is stored energy. Thus, we might think of labor as flow, and capital as stock. About stocks and flows, wiki says:
A stock in this broader sense is some entity that is accumulated over time by inflows and/or depleted by outflows. Stocks can only be changed via flows. Mathematically a stock can be seen as an accumulation or integration of flows over time - with outflows subtracting from the stock. Stocks typically have a certain value at each moment of time - e.g. the number of population at a certain moment.

A flow (or "rate") changes a stock over time. Usually we can clearly distinguish inflows (adding to the stock) and outflows (subtracting from the stock). Flows typically are measured over a certain interval of time - e.g., the number of births over a day or month.

In fact, to return to and amend the first paragraph, labor and capital not only both begin with the energy of the sun (flow), they also begin with the materials of the earth (stock). Plants use the energy of the sun to do work to transform the gases and minerals--the earth's raw materials--into stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds, and so on. The sun's energy is actually a stock in that there is a finite amount of gas, and as it burns, outflows from the sun become inflows to earth. This transferrence of energy gives plants the ability to do work, and their work gradually increases the natural capital of the ecosystems of the earth, which is the combination of earth's stock and the inflows of energy from the sun.

Natural capital is the earth's accumulated capital of stored energy, our inheritance. This includes all the wealth of diverse ecosystems, the water catchment of forests, and so on, as well as fossil fuels which are forests long gone. It's worth noting that fossil fuels have taken billions of years to accumulate (slow inflow) and are being depleted at a remarkably rapid rate (fast outflow). There are, in fact, only inflows and outflows in a given system at a given scale - the wider you look, the more this looks like circulation within stock. So, an outflow here is an inflow there. We all know what happens with the food we eat, and the rest comes out as heat energy.

Of course, there is a difference between individual capital accumulation and collective capital accumulation. Lifeforms do work, they create surplus, that surplus may increase their odds of survival either directly or indirectly, it may encourage other lifeforms to flourish that relate either as symbiotes or parasites. It likely creates more niches, which invites greater diversity and complexity, all of which allows for more and more life in an ecosystem. If life is wealth, this is how it's built.

his is all to demonstrate (1) that capital accumulation has a counterpart in nature, and (2) what it looks like and how it works in nature.

And remember, the role of labor in accumulating is that labor brings inflows. It is not the only inflow, and whether or not it results in accumulated capital for an individual or household depends on a number of things in addition to labor, but a consideration of the notion of accumulated capital in its broadest sense is a good place to start. Next let's look at labor.

Capital accumulation - a thought experiment 1

Part 2
Part 3

According to Doreen Warriner, a primary problem with subsistence farming economies is inadequate capital accumulation. Capital accumulation "refers to the gathering or amassing of objects of value; the increase in wealth through concentration; or the creation of wealth."

I can only understand her assertion to mean that the surplus of labor in subsistence farming households or communities doesn't amount to enough to form a viable buffer against disaster.

How much capital do you need?

Whether or not a buffer is adequate depends entirely on the context. In a non-competitive primitive society, having one full grain silo mortared into a canyon wall might be enough to get through a bad year. Where there is an ongoing risk of raids by a competing society, an adequate buffer might include a class of warriors supported largely by the women's agricultural efforts.

In contemporary society, it's hard to know what's necessary, and competitors tend to keep pace with each other just to feel secure. During the cold war, two competitive societies poured tremendous amounts of surplus capital into developing expensive nuclear arsenals and accumulating arms just in case. In the Soviet Union, they managed to extract this surplus of labor from a relatively impoverished society. In a hypothetical permanent colony on Mars, basic subsistence would involve a lot more than just growing food and making clothes, so there would presumably need to be very efficient mechanisms in place for taking care of these things so ample additional time could be freed up for troubleshooting life support systems. For the colonists, your surplus doesn't even begin until a lot more in the way of basic needs have been met--your subsistence is dependent on a lot more accumulated capital than a hunter-gatherer, and your surplus labor goes towards ensuring the continuity of this essential capital before you can begin to accumulate a buffer. (Note: this is just an exaggerated version of the difference between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies--which I delve into more in part 3--in that farmers need more capital than h-gs because the surrounding environment cannot provide for their needs by itself...in other words, they can rely less on ecosystem services.)

A lot of our notions around self-sufficiency and idyllic, rural hamlet economies in the developed world arise in the context of massive capital accumulation occurring all around us. There is no village or inner city in the U.S. that is not impacted by the vast amount of capital accumulation in our society as a whole. For example, a family homesteading in rural Eastern Washington has a truck, a grain mill, a wood stove, etc. Where do these objects come from? They probably didn't make them. Even if they found the grain mill second-hand and fixed it up, it's existence in the pawn shop is still a result of massive capital accumulation in the surrounding economy. It is a relic of that economy and it's value (in this case: cheap) arises in that context--there are enough floating around out there (high supply), and not that many people want them right now (low demand).

As one example of differences in value relative to collective capital accumulation, my neighbor consistently puts old wood out on the curb with a FREE sign on it. Sometimes it sits there for days. I can promise you that wood would be gone in an instant in the highlands of Vietnam, or anyplace in the world where people routinely walk several miles to gather firewood, which are the same places that are poor, and without mass amounts of capital accumulation leaching out of the cities into the countryside. So, in America and all the developed world we are awash in material goods, which makes it easy to take for granted the value of capital accumulation...which we harvest, in the homesteading community, more or less as scavengers. (Quick note: there is nothing wrong with this; it is a very reasonable and ethical choice to make, but it is not a viable model for a sustainable economic structure, and ultimately that's what I'll be exploring here.)

That said, it is also abundantly clear that the distribution patterns of capital accumulation in our society have resulted in gross inequalities that are not the product of differences in how hard people work. Moreover, this has almost always been the case when agriculture yields a surplus. It's never been the productive farmers that call the shots, but those that live off the surplus of their productivity, e.g. the aristocrats taxing heavily for "protection" services. Jeff Vail's Rhizome Theory demonstrates how dependency which begins with the desire to pool risk by coordinating capital accumulation results in (a) heirarchy, which (b) drives unsustainable competition between social actors that (c) results in resource destruction and oppression.

But of course capital accumulation is necessary for a secure society and decent standard of living! So the big question is: how do we accumulate capital without the associated inequalities and deprivations? Here begins the thought experiment.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Community Alliance for Global Justice's critique of AGRA

Four Categories of Problems with AGRA

Political
• uses tax-exempt foundation money to act without accountability
• uses influence to monopolize discussions of development and agriculture
• promotes solutions decided upon undemocratically, by people whose authority has not been conferred by the populace and whose frame of reference is the Global North
• frames the problem as African production, rather than global distribution

Social
• privileges large-scale farmers/landholders
• encourages the purchase of inputs from foreign companies, leading to indebtedness
• intensifies reliance on volatile global economy
• does not address structural and social inequalities
• has the potential to exacerbate women’s poverty in integrated cash economies

Environmental
• encourages higher intensity of cultivation and monocropping, which decreases biodiversity and undermines indigenous crops
• potential for GE crops to be introduced and contaminate surrounding crops
• is uncritical of the first Green Revolution and does not acknowledge that its priniciples were introduced in some countries in Africa, and failed

Ethical
• privileges/asserts Western knowledge systems
• limits self-determination among farmers in Africa
• receives funding from foundations whose wealth is rooted in the maintenance of unequal global distribution
• promotes a racist model of development in which African producers are targets of Western conceptions of linear “progress”
• devalues the systems and knowledge of local peoples and precludes reciprocity and mutuality in exchanging ideas

One.org's Agricultural Policy - Critical Analysis

I am always excited about prospects for linking organic gardening with sustainable development, and appreciate any connection we can make between our own struggles for a sustainable local food system with the subsistence struggles of farmers in developing countries.

That said, I am fairly convinced at this point that One.org is not acting in the best interests of sustainability or resilience--economic or ecological--for Africa or for ourselves. Their long-term plans for developing Africa's agriculture seem by all accounts to be focusing on "green revolution" style improvements, including GM corn crops, subsidized inputs of patented seeds and chemical fertilizers, and partnerships with Agribusiness giants Monsanto and Cargill. There are also indications that the organization supports structural adjustment policies that force developing nations to remove tariffs and open up their ag markets to the fluctuations of global commodity prices.

I took some time to research this before writing, as I wanted to make sure it wasn't just hearsay. The fact is, One.org and their grantmakers and board members -- including AGRA (Gates Foundation) and the U.S. government's "Feed the Future" initiative -- are very guarded about the details of what they are actually doing on the ground in Africa. I did manage to find some good indications that the worst is true. Below are some excerpts and links to the most legitimate of the articles and documents I could find.

Different Shade of Green in Africa
Time article that covers the competing perspectives on sustainable agricultural development, with AGRA (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation→One.org) falling solidly on the Big Ag/GMO/chemical inputs side of the argument rather than the ecological agriculture side; also includes a disturbing indication of the ongoing costs that small farmers will incur under the new system.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Agricultural Development Strategy Overview:
"$39.1 million - Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) - African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) - This project seeks to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties to benefit smallholder African farmers in five countries. A portion of this grant funds research that uses transgenic approaches. (Monsanto is a subcontractor to AATF on this grant.)"

One.org policy brief:
"The private sector is a key component needed to drive growth, create markets, and improve food security by creating employment opportunities and reducing barriers to agricultural trade. The Asian and Latin American "Green Revolutions" that increased incomes and access to food for an estimated 1 billion people was underpinned by public and private investments in research, irrigation, infrastructure and extension. Therefore, investments are needed across the African agriculture sector for improving suitable seeds and fertilizers, farming practices, storage, processing, distribution and marketing…"

Huffington Post article:
"If you had any doubts about where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is really placing its bets, AGRA Watch's recent announcement of the Foundation's investment of $23.1 million in 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock should put them to rest. Genetic engineering: full speed ahead."

Guardian article:
“South Africa-based watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety then found that the foundation was teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to "develop the soya value chain" in Mozambique and elsewhere. Who knows what this corporate-speak really means, but in all probability it heralds the big time introduction of GM soya in southern Africa."

Monsanto blog post supporting One.org: 'Nuff said.

Statement by Dr. Hans Herrens, chief editor of the most comprehensive survey of agricultural development strategies to date, the 600 page “Agriculture at a Crossroads” report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD):
"More revealing than what is said (or not said) in Feed the Future, is how it is interpreted. According to USAID, FTF will “build on breakthroughs in science and technology,” to be "delivered to" small-scale agricultural producers - which seems to belie the words about participation and recognizing local and Indigenous knowledge that appeared in the Summary document (the Country Investment Plans). There is no mention of agroecological farming or ecological agriculture and neither any of the IAASTD, the most comprehensive assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology published in the past couple of years, or actually anytime. There is no mention of addressing inequity in trade arrangements or within or between countries. Rather, the emphasis is on "agriculture-led growth" through "trade and other mechanisms," "seeking reductions in government controls on commodity prices,” and “protecting intellectual property.” The focus throughout is rather vaguely on building partnerships with everyone -- with the World Bank, IFAD, private sector, NGOs, etc. Special emphasis is given to investing in the WB's Global Ag & Food Security Program (GAFSP) which allows only minimal and carefully controlled inputs from civil society and which many see as the WB's way of funneling more investments towards transgenic, nanotech & other converging technologies."

And for your perusal, if you're as much an Ag nerd as I am: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD):
The objective of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) was to assess the impacts of past, present and future agricultural knowledge, science and technology on the
• reduction of hunger and poverty,
• improvement of rural livelihoods and human health, and
• equitable, socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The place where Greg & Annie got married!


There's No Place Like Here: Communal Living with Nikki Silva

Spend Less, Invest More

Anything you spend money on can be thought of as an investment. The investment is both in yourself and in whomever made the product. If you spend money on a movie, you are investing in entertainment for your own well-being, perhaps (to take your mind off things), as well as in the studio that brought you the movie.

That said, we often don't think of our regular expenditures as investments, and doing so could change our way of thinking about how we spend money. When we are weighing whether or not to purchase thing A or thing B, considering the potential ROI on our investment might help us decide.

HLS Building Resilient Communities and other articles

Article by Longstaff et al: Building Resilient Communities: A Preliminary Framework for Assessment.


Economies of Scale Suppress Risk Resilience.
The food system is one context where this hypothesis might be tested. Over the last half century increasing scale and specialization of production and processing have significantly reduced the consumers cost of food as a proportion of overall income. The source of this savings has, however, also substantially reduced the number, diversity, and distribution of producers and processors. This narrows the ability of the food system to bounce back from a catastrophic event. If this is true for the food system might it also be the case for other supply chains?
Because the supply chain originates far away and draws on unknown sources there is an impression of complexity. And across these attenuated supply chains there are complex characteristics: lots of filters, need for pattern recognition, and some aspects of adaptive response.

But is the food system “complex” as defined by the Cynefin framework? The crowd sourcing of many more independent producers and processors has been reduced and standardized. Open markets have been replaced with much more predictable production contracts. The entire system has been reengineered and squeezed to maximize every penny-per-pound. In some ways, with fewer participants and fewer relationships the food system is actually much simpler than four or five decades ago.

Resilient Character.

And, from Resiliance Alliance:
The resilience of social-ecological systems depends largely on underlying, slowly changing variables such as climate, land use, nutrient stocks, human values and policies. Resilience can be degraded by a large variety of factors including:
1. loss of biodiversity
2. toxic pollution
3. inflexible, closed institutions
4. perverse subsidies that encourage unsustainable use of resources
5. a focus on production and increased efficiences that leads to a loss of redundancy

HLSwatch "Resilience: 5 Principles of Good Practice"

Article here.
For an individual or community or system, an increasing body of evidence suggests resilience is more likely when there is:

Awareness: Observe and engage the full context,
Connectedness: Recognize and engage our full range of relationships and dependencies,
Realism: Differentiate between cause and effect, capacity and capability, novelty and continuity.
Agility: Expect change in context and relationships, remain creatively open to change, and actively embrace change.
Flexibility: Expand the “basin of attraction” where and how turbulence can occur without threatening our fundamental identity.

Jamais Cascio's Principles of Resilience

This is framed in the context of disaster preparedness, but of course has broader application. Article here.

Graphic by Mario Vellandi

Diversity: Not relying on a single kind of solution means not suffering from a single point of failure. (Prepare for different kinds of problems -- needing to escape the house, needing to stay in the house, dealing with no water, etc.)

Redundancy: Backup, backup, backup. Never leave yourself with just one path of escape or rescue. (Make sure you have multiple copies of critical documents and extra amounts of key medications.)

Decentralization: Again with the single point of failure problem. Centralized systems look strong, but when they fail, they fail catastrophically. (Don't store your emergency supplies in one location -- spread them out.)

Collaboration: We're all in this together. (Take advantage of -- and learn to use -- collaborative technologies, especially those offering shared communication and information.)

Transparency: Don't hide your systems -- transparency makes it easier to figure out where a problem may lie. (Make sure key shut-off switches -- for gas, especially -- are readily identified.)

Openness: Many eyes make all bugs shallow. Share your plans and preparations, and listen when people point out flaws. (You're safer in an emergency when everyone is safer.)

Fail Gracefully: Failure happens, so make sure that failure states don't make things worse than they are already. (Think about what'll happen when disaster strikes -- what will fall, shatter, burst into flames, and what can you do now to prevent it?)

Flexibility: Be ready to change your plans when they're not working the way you expect. Don't get locked in to a particular approach. (Pay attention to what's happening around you, and don't expect things to remain stable.)

Foresight: You can't predict the future, but you can hear its footsteps approaching. Think and prepare. (Make sure you have your emergency kit ready before the emergency hits.)

10 Principles for a Resilient Culture [WORKING DRAFT]

1. Secure Your Sustenance. Never give up your direct link to sustenance resources including land, raw materials, tools, and skills. This need not apply to every individual, but should apply to every household and at the very least to a village-scale unit of households for whom mutual loyalty and interdependence runs deep. Jeff Vail's minimal self-sufficiency. Emphasize livelihood over career.

2. Cultivate Interdependency and Relationship. Do favors for neighbors, develop reciprocal relationships and trade. Have fun together. Hold fairs and festivals. Develop a skill set that has value to your neighbors. Offer it. Jack of All Trades, Master of One.

3. Invest Much, Spend Little. Protect your endowments. Always have enough surplus of basic needs on hand to outlast a bad year, or three. Treat your non-renewable resources as capital and never deplete the principle. Always think in terms of long-term payoff.

4. Know No Waste. Socially: everyone is capable of doing something useful. Ensure everybody has a role that is meaningful, takes effort, and provides something of value. No tokenism. Materially: eliminate your waste stream. There is no waste in nature. The ideal is that everything either biodegrades or can be limitlessly recycled; energy must be renewable.

5. Replace Standard of Living with Quality of Life. Create meaningful rituals, hold recurring events, eat well, and have fun together.

6. Practice Democracy. Practice making decisions together to manage common resources. Honor everybody's voice and opinion. Avoid consistently alienating anyone. Feuds are real threats when families have ongoing multigenerational relationships with each other. Get comfortable with argument and hashing things out till you reach a decision.

7. Set Clear Boundaries. Have clear notions around ownership and legal entitlements. Make sure people know their individual and collective rights.

8. Embrace Complexity. Some things are not simple. Be attentive to externalized costs. Do not judge activities, tools, or investments by measures which reduce efficiency or productivity to simple axes.

9. Value Diversity. Not just in ecosystems but in economies and social environments. Monocultures and homogeneity in general generally yield gains for the few at the expense of the many, and short-term "efficiencies" at the expense of long-term systemic resilience. Respect your neighbor and the choices your neighbor makes, so long as they do not actively impede your own ability to take care of yourself or your family.

10. Self-sacrifice. The acceptance of the possibility of death releases unimaginable power. One need not be willing to kill to protect themselves, their family, their neighbors, the innocent, or the good, but one must be willing to die to do so.

Preparing our Communities for Uncertain Times. Updating "community development." The problem with the idea of development. Redefine or toss. In it's place: ? Proposition: this is where we should have been going all along and certainly where we should be heading now. Responding the Jeff Vail's "One institution that I do wish to explore here is the notion of anthropological self-awareness. It is important that the every participant node in rhizome has an understanding of the theoretical foundation of rhizome, and of the general workings of anthropological systems in general. Without this knowledge, it is very likely that participants will fail to realize the pitfalls of dependency, resulting in a quick slide back to hierarchy... Additionally, it is important to recognize the cultural programming that hierarchal systems provide, and to consciously reject and replace parts of this with a myth, taboo, and morality that supports rhizome and discourages hierarchy. Rules are inherently hierarchal—they must be enforced by a superior power, and are not appropriate for governing rhizome. However, normative standards—social norms, taboos, and values—are effective means of coordinating rhizome without resorting to hierarchy. For example, within the context of anthropological self-awareness, it would be considered “wrong” or “taboo” to have slaves, to be a lord of the manor, or to “own” more property than you can reasonably put to sustainable use. This wouldn’t be encoded in a set of laws and enforced by a ruling police power, but rather exist as the normative standard, compliance with which is the prerequisite for full participation in the network."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Jeff Vail

Required reading on "Rhizomes"

From the first article:

"...it is remarkable that such a simple concept underlies the necessity of growth: within hierarchy, surplus production equates to power, requiring competing entities across all scales to produce ever more surplus—to grow—in order to compete, survive, and prosper."

"Growth cannot continue infinitely on a finite planet. This must seem obvious to many people, but I emphasize the point because we tend to overlook or ignore its significance: the basis of our civilization is fundamentally unsustainable. Our civilization seems to have a knack for pushing the envelope, for finding stop-gap measures to push growth beyond a sustainable level. This is also problematic because the further we are able to inflate this bubble beyond a level that is sustainable indefinitely, the farther we must ultimately fall to return to a sustainable world. This is Civilization’s sunk cost: there is serious doubt that our planet can sustain 6+ billion people over the long term, but by drawing a line in the sand, that 'a solution that results in the death of millions or billions to return to a sustainable level' is fundamentally impermissible, we merely increase the number that must ultimately die off."

"Can global governance lead to an agreement to abate or otherwise manage growth effectively? It's theoretically possible, but I see it about as likely as solving war by getting everyone to agree to not fight. Plus, as the constitutional validity and effective power of the Nation-State declines, even if Nation-States manage to all agree to abate growth, they will fail because they are engaged in a very real peer-polity competition with non-state groups that will only use this competitive weakness as a means to establish a more dominant position--and continue growth."

"Exhaustion of energy reserves or environmental capacity could hobble the ability of civilization to grow for long periods of time--perhaps even on a geological time scale--but we have no way of knowing for sure that a post-crash civilization will not be just as ragingly growth-oriented as today's civilization, replete with the same or greater negative effects on the environment and the human spirit."