The Green Gap

In the Cold War, we feared a Missile Gap was a strategic weakness. Nowadays, we must awaken to the fact that the Green Gap is true strategic weakness: the nations whose economies will thrive in the coming years will not be those with the biggest factories, but those with the most sustainable, efficient, and ecological markets. What we require is a Strategic "Green Reserve" of ecological design to weather the coming changes that both climate and resource scarcity will force on the international economy.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The End of Wishing

Durban has ended in yet another do-nothing-disguised-as-a-half-measure. Kyoto was never going to succeed. We have been duped long enough. We have to stop wishing others will see the light and solve the problem for us. Anjali Appadurai had it right when she said:
I speak for more than half the world’s population, we are the silent majority. You’ve given us a seat in this hall, but our interests are not at the table. What does it take to get a stake in this game? Lobbyists? Corporate influence? Money? ... You have been negotiating all of my life. In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises.
She's right. Hell, I'm more than twice her age and they've been negotiating MY whole life. As a youth, I wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney about Acid Rain - he's the only Prime Minister who actually wrote me back and signed his name on the paper, by the way. Now, after Canada took so many strides to stop the tide of noxious chemical fumes across the border (admittedly, the noxious fumes mainly stopped due to American government regulations that stated industries had to openly declare their effluents, combined with the fact the bottom fell our of American manufacturing), and was viewed as a leader in Environmentalism by so many, we've stepped out of Kyoto. Durban has been the final confirmation of a sad fact: national governments are both unequipped to and incapable of effecting adequate change to save our children's future.

At first, the thought is immensely depressing. We wonder why we let ourselves get strung along for decades with nothing but unfulfilled targets as our recompense. We wonder how - after cultivating such a careful cynicism - we could have been duped. Depression turns to horror as we think of the world our children will inherit. Horror at the thought that our kids will have it even rougher than us. Our generation is the first generation in recent history that will have less than the generation before it. Where we are newcomers to (or soon-to-be newcomers to) an economy where the search for jobs is cruel and unrelenting for so many... will our children enter a world when their search is for fresh water? Arable land? We have wants, but what wants will they have?

If you take a moment, though, it is possible to transcend this horror. We can break through the veil of inevitability if we simply change the way we look at the situation. If governments keep getting made by promises that aren't kept; if we sense that there is a rule here that seems to govern governments such that they inevitably end up taking the most wildly shortsighted path toward the future; if we are seeing the same thing happening over and over and over again, we might just be stuck in a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing system. Knowing that is the first step to liberation. It doesn't sound like it, but bear with me.

There is an ancient Norwegian poem that has a stanza which states, "Ice we call the broad bridge (Ís kǫllum brú bræiða)". If you think of it, a seafaring people which used rivers for trade shouldn't think of ice that way. Rivers were the conduit to their sources of wealth inland, ice was a stopper of commerce and... well, let's be honest... raping an pillaging. There can't be anything good about a drakkar frozen into the ice if you're a Viking. If you think about it, though, the stanza makes sense. Ice allows you to cross to the other side on foot. Previously impossible communication and trade is now possible. It just so happens that you have to use a different mode of transport, and the direction you're travelling is perpendicular to the direction you would normally travel. It takes a change of outlook, but the change doesn't mean the end - it just means you've got different opportunities.

As long as you can wrap your head around the change in lifestyle, you're gold.

The first step is realising there's a problem. The drakkar's frozen in the ice, and you're not going downriver anytime soon. Governments are trapped in a positive feedback loop that makes them do things that are not in their own long-term self-interest. In this case, it makes no sense to down the oars and grab the rudder. You're not going anywhere that way. You have to acknowledge the predicament you're in, and have a good think.

A good first stop to learning how to change a system is Donella Meadows' masterpiece article "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System". Donella Meadows is an unsung genius of systems theory, and sadly, she was lost to us before her time. What remains of her written work is well worth a read as she had a knack for making the unfathomable into something not only understandable but palatable as well. An easy reference to the twelve leverage points is on Wikipedia and her book, Thinking in systems : a primer, is available on Amazon. Her advice is great, but perhaps not exactly what we need right at the beginning. What we need at the beginning is a less sweeping philosophy. We need something a little more local.

If the national government is unable to change, then focus smaller. Change can happen at the Provincial level, the Municipal level, even the community level... but it can also happen on the individual level. As long as we have some objectives in mind when we do our local thing, we are acting in the interest of the "think global, act local" mantra. One global change we can enact locally is to rely less on hard currency, and save it for what we can't avoid using it on. If you do one or two things that either help you not spend money, or help you trade goods rather than services with other people, then you can hold on to cash for things like the heating bill - which can't be paid in carrots. Here are a few general ideas to start us down that road.

Money is a golden treadmill. The more comes in, the faster you run, the harder it is to get off. Debt is the same, only backwards. Either way, you're running... and the more you run, the more the wheel has you. The key is not to have more money or simply reduce your debts. The key is to reduce the need for money in you life. That can happen in a number of ways, and the most important one, in my opinion, is sharing. Our economies began in gift-giving and social debt rather than barter and financial debt. The concept of debt was originally moral rather than accountable. Many societies continue this gift-giving tradition. The Japanese, for one, give gifts all the time - though if you ask them, they'd like the whole tradition to stop. To my friends and family in Japan, gift-giving is a bit like a treadmill, too - once one gift is given, you MUST reciprocate. It can go on forever, and this problem is compounded by the fact that the gifts are typically useless and purchased with money. What's more, when I take a gift to my friends or family in Japan, it's typically food and they typically feel obliged to open it right there and share it with you, which is kind of defeating the purpose of giving them something. I love the Japanese very much, but their culture, much like every other culture in the world (mine included) has its weird parts. My father-in-law has a solution. He grows organic vegetables. His vegetables are DELICIOUS. He tells me with great relish how he brews up garlic and hot pepper sprays as insect deterrence, cuts bottles into little whirlygigs to put on poles so the ground vibrations scare moles, and he also likes to discuss the finer points of keeping a matsutake mushroom plot secret. To this day he's still opaque about whether or not he ACTUALLY has a matsutake mushroom plot. Well played, dad-in-law, well-played.

His goal, however, is the farming itself... so he doesn't keep most of his harvest. His vegetables go straight to his clients, who are quite delighted to have them. Here's the solution: give something home made and useful, like vegetables. Make wine or beer. Have an apple tree in the front yard and share the fruit. Do something cheap (or preferably free), make a surplus, and give it away. If it is something that replaces money that someone else might have spent, you've done your job. You have successfully stopped money - even if it's pennies - from entering the market. Gift-giving can turn into more long-term and regular arrangements. For instance, I currently teach English to a person who, in turn, comes to my house and teaches my son Japanese (and gets a good lunch out of the bargain, as well). Give what you have to show what you've got, and perhaps someone else will make the deal more permanent.

Have you spoken to your neighbours lately? Do they have a car? Do you work in the same place? You could commute together. Cars are the bane of my existence. They are endless money pits that do nothing but depreciate in value, pollute the air, and break down unexpectedly. When I was living in Canada, I walked to work 45 minutes every day (yes, even on THOSE days). I still had a car for groceries and the like, but I walked to work. It's something you might want to consider: if you have a car, you may be wasting money. Here is a nifty calculator to determine how much that might be. Here's a quick tip - buying a new car is about equal to adding over $100k to your mortgage. Ask yourself, would you like $100,000 more house, or would you like a car? If you feel you need a car for your job, is it a job you really want to be doing? Could you do a job within walking distance for $500 less per month instead of paying for insurance and gas and lease and repairs? Currently, I live in a huge metropolis with horrible traffic, and I ride a little electric scooter. It's slow, it's small, and it's cheap... but it also fits between the cars, and I get home faster than anyone driving in a four-wheeled vehicle. You could get a similar model - or an e-bike - for a reasonable amount. As a matter of fact, it's about the same as a standard adult-sized bike. To me, I'd rather pay higher rent and walk/bike than pay rent and be a slave to a car lease. In the end, not owning a car is a good financial decision, and by doing so, the money treadmill turns slower.

Going back to a gift-giving and barter economy (at least in small part) should assist us save a little money for lifestyle improvements down the road... like that solar panel you always wanted, or just a better mash tun for your all-grain brewing operation. Those are a few ideas that you can use to wean yourself and your friends and neighbours off hard currency a little. Trust me, these skills and flows of goods will come in useful! If the power goes out for a couple days, you'll be glad to know that Maggie down the road has fresh veggies, that Jim on the corner has the compost Maggie likes, and you've got the homebrew that Jim likes. These little safety nets make life a little more comfortable.

The next stop on this ride is municipal policy, and you can start to read about that here and here and here and here...

No comments:

Post a Comment