Sunday, December 11, 2011

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."


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

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