I am reading Stan Cox’s The Path to a Livable Future. I will write more on that later. Or maybe I won’t. I haven’t decided yet because I haven’t seen much of this titular path yet, though I am over halfway through the book. He writes quite a lot on the paths that got us here — a tale that needs to be told, loudly, but not one that shows us anything more than our true starting point here in the present (HINT: it’s not where most of the wealthy folks, those who don’t read Stan Cox, think we are… but you knew that already.) There is much less said about any trails to follow forward. As I’m wading through the chapter entitled “To-Do List for the 2020s”, I am thus far not seeing much that I, a not-terribly-wealthy woman living alone in Vermont, can put my hands to, much less achieve. Nor much that is of practical use to meeting any living need.
As I was reading, I began to suspect that my expectations from Cox’s titles were unreasonably high. I began to think that the path and the to-do list that I’d like to see in print — a description of things that I can do, as well as some things that can conceivably be accomplished in small, fairly powerless groups — may not exist. Shouldn’t such a thing be big news? If someone had written a book of concrete actions that everyone could take to help muddle through, that would have gone to the top of the bestseller list by now. Right? Well, maybe…
The more I think about this, the more I think that maybe such a list would not garner much attention after all. It may not even be publishable — because such a list is not likely to generate much profit for anyone, from the list producers to those who take the list advice. I mean, there are such list-makers already and they’re not notably newsworthy. Kris De Decker and Low-Tech Magazine regularly put out practical advice on achieving a low-energy life-style simply and cheaply. I could almost envision building many of the tools and systems he describes all by myself, and I’m the least handy person I know. But who reads his [solar-powered!] website? Not many folks. I suspect this is because that simplicity and cheapness and ease of implementation that even a maladroit can manage do not translate into a great deal of money for anybody.
(Though it must also be said that it’s not no money… De Decker does live fairly well in Barcelona with his writing as a primary income source…)
However, the sorts of easy things that I could do to positively affect my future and make it livable are the kiss of death to profits. First, low-tech solutions are, well, low-tech. They don’t require costly tools and materials nor specialized training and certification to implement. The whole point behind low-tech is that there is little to buy, neither resources nor labor; and nobody is going to get rich in a world where little is bought and sold. But it’s even worse than a reduction of current sales — it’s the loss, likely permanent, of potential. The sorts of things that will create a livable future are almost certainly things that will also destroy most of what we presently do to generate profits. A path to a livable future that just anyone can follow is, by definition, the end of specialization and scarcity, and therefore the end of our economy as we know it.
(If we can all meet our needs for ourselves, then we’ve no need to buy anything… this is the end of spending money…)
I think we can all agree that a livable future is one that uses much less of this planet, one that manufactures less, that transports less, that does less. Yet, in this livable future, each of us will be doing more of what in actuality supports our own lives. So we will all have less money to spend since we will be spending our time on ourselves not on wage work for others. Having less money and less need to spend money, of course, feeds into demand destruction. And demand destruction, selling less stuff, makes many things costlier to make. Which, of course, depresses supply. Which makes them costlier to buy… and etc. You see, once some critical number of us start on this livable path, I suspect it will become an unstoppable avalanche of change. The trick will be to channel the flow. The “right path”, the one that is survivable, is the one that keeps as much as possible out of the avalanche of destruction. The paths that we need to find are those that allow us to mitigate damage.
But change will come regardless of what we do and what path we choose. It is here for many of us. And unfortunately, the path we seem to be currently on is a lonely one that is exacerbating pain and destruction only to enrich a very few people through complete depletion of the the last dregs of all our planet’s resources. We undoubtedly need to jump off this present path if we want any definition of a livable future — for ourselves or for life generally. The good news is that doing what we need to do for ourselves, setting off that avalanche of demand and supply destruction, will undermine the wealth and power of those who are currently driving us along this road of misery.
To be sure, it will also be difficult for the rest of us no matter what path we are on. We have to create everything anew. Even our goals and values need to be transformed. To take just one example, in a world where there is less resource use, there is less need for management of resources. Travel down that path even a little ways, and you’ll find there is no need for leadership. Similarly, when there are few paths to wealth accumulation (because there is no need for what is not a need), there will be no reasons to guard against theft. Everybody will have just what they need. But this equitable if guard-less world is a world that has no heroes… How much of the Story of Us will just melt away when we aren’t fighting each other for control of stuff?
(Those that thrive on such things may find that heaven is, indeed, somewhat boring… or at least has no need of their talents… this is likely to be no insubstantial problem for the rest of us…)
But I’m talking of abstract things when what I think needs to be centered are all the practical things that we need to do to create this path forward. I should say “these paths” because that plurality is the crucial thing. Each place must deliberately find its own way based on local resources and needs. A path, it should be noted, is a physical construct. It is both made and material. All the things that make up a livable path are place-based, are rooted in the biophysical world, and are assembled into a system of moving through time. A path is a way of living created by those living in that place, by Us, not some remote or centralized Them. We will make actual paths forward.
But what makes up these paths? Are there generalities? Well, of course! Because life has only a few needs: food, shelter, reproduction and community. So in any given place, there will be a need for food. Planting a garden of what grows well in your region, what you like to eat, what you can turn into nourishing meals — this is a logical first step. But it is one that includes many side-steps. Because you need the tools, soil, water and sunlight to grow that food. You need a system to process and store the harvest, and likely distribute whatever surplus is produced (because zucchini…). You need whatever is necessary to turn garden produce into meals. And you need some plan for dealing with the waste streams. (Compost!)
Similarly, in every place there will be a need for shelter. This includes clothing as well as physical structures that protect our hairless bodies. Like planting a garden, making shelter involves many peripheral plans and subsidiary steps. It is, however, even more specific to locality than food production. We humans have a relatively limited range of foods. Our food materials have followed us around the globe (not always to the benefit of local ecosystems… but here we are…). Shelter is defined by place though. Vermont has little need of protection from heat and fire; we need protection against cold and all the rot that comes from a damp climate. However, in New Mexico the heat will kill you, and fire will destroy whatever you’ve made of your world unless you plan accordingly. On the other hand, there is less need for winter heating, and mud walls will last for centuries. So shelter is the first step on a place-based path.
It seems like I am stating the obvious, I know. But in the last century the culture of mass production — that which was necessary to channel wealth from the many to the few — has led to a prevalent belief in single solutions. Hence there is “The Path” on the cover of even Stan Cox’s book. Clothing is not made to benefit bodies in a particular climate. It is made to sell everywhere. Homes are similarly mass produced, shipping in materials from distant lands to make structures that are effective shelter in no actual place. (Witness “manufactured housing” in any kind of weather.) And all of these single solutions, by design, will break down within much less than a human lifetime. So we need to unlearn the one-size-fits-all approach to life and figure out what size actually does fit each of our places and our needs. We aren’t looking for the path for all of us, but a path for each.
Perhaps the first thing that needs constructing in nearly every location is not physical however. To manage food, shelter and reproduction, there must be community. None of us can do anything on our own. We need each other. We need to work together.
(In fact, our first need is to communally subvert all the property laws that have made it necessary to buy our needs. And for that, the first people we need to bring into our community are those who presently enforce those laws… I would also include any folks who make those laws, but they are likely the ones who benefit from those laws and therefore highly unlikely to do away with them… but I digress…)
Community crafting is more basic than merely working together. To make community means to make a life together. We need to live together on this path into the future. This is why I am so very interested in calendrical things and celebrations and traditional rituals. And it’s not just my own predilection. David Fleming’s Lean Logic, the self-titled encyclopedic guide book to the future, is several hundred pages of what boils down to one message: Throw a party! Every week! Rob Hopkins, the creator of Transition Towns, is a brewer. Think about that…
Find something to celebrate together continually, and your community — including the more-than-human world — will thrive. Because this celebratory focus on life, this is the care, the love, that is missing from the world of individualism and profit-seeking. This is, perhaps, The Path… or at least this celebration of living is the way all our place-based paths are made viable… that is, this is the livable path.
I’d like to hear from others on their paths. So that we can share ideas. That seems to me to be the only good reason to keep spending time and resources on communication technology. Also I have ideas that I’d like to see turned into real things, and I can’t do that by myself. For example, why is there not a clockwork or flywheel ceiling fan? Why do we need electricity to rotate a blade? Someone handier than I am needs to draw up a simple design that we can all copy and install in our kitchens… And why do we not have air filters on chimneys? Seems like some effective cap could be made of wool and charcoal. (I could keep going all day on inventions I’d like to see in the world, but I won’t… for now…)
So, I’ve left comments open so you can share whatever inspiration you might have.
And if you have a design for my cheap clockwork fan, I’d be delighted to hear it!
©Elizabeth Anker 2022