Poverty, Wealth and the Future

First, I can’t say enough good about Rhyd Wildemuth’s esssay on the Spirit of Poverty. It has clearly touched a nerve, and I’m frankly embarrassed how many writers I respect have jumped up to condemn it. Maybe condemn is a strong word- contest it might be better- but clearly emotions are running high. Being reminded how destructive and entitled your expectations are is never comfortable in the abstract, and Rhyd has concretely outed himself as a survivor of the kind of poverty that puts most of our frustrations with the electric bill and the price of burritos firmly in their place. That feels like a challenge to the face, and well that it should, because we have an entire industry- multiple industries- committed to ensuring that the people with the moral authority to challenge us face to face on the consequences of our consumerism are never permitted to do so.

The Problem with Collapse

Once upon a time I was a collapse blogger, or at least I was read by people who also read collapse bloggers, and I read a lot of collapse bloggers, and even to the extent that I consider myself a critical voice, I probably helped, in an infinitesimal fashion, propagate that meme between 2005 and 2010 or so. There are reasons why I will never fully repudiate that- the future is not an independent variable, and what you believe will happen is not necessarily related to what you want to happen. I don’t think good things are going to happen to the climate, to commodity markets, and to the lives of literally billions of people across the planet who will pay the price for these changes in blood.

However, that’s not what collapse blogging is ever about. Collapse blogging, in the first world, has traditionally been a skill-share for exempting oneself for the consequences of the last two centuries of economic activity. At its worst, this is fantasizing about killing those neighbors who have never quite made it into our hardened hearts. On a less horrible level, it assumes that there is something amazing and unique about some individuals that justifies their elevation over the suffering their lives have caused.

And, a fundamental assumption is that the lifestyle that will best survive the zombie apocalypse (can we please be done with non-sarcastic invocations of zombies?) is that of the wealthy playboy. Oh, nobody actually describes it that way, but so many of the “skills” promulgated by collapseniks depend on social circumstances- free-and-clear land ownership, a benign relationship with law enforcement, able bodies, no employment or social obligations, access to surplus capital to invest in solar panels, tractors, water purification, wilderness, etc- that are in every particular synonymous with the highest level of social capital in todays (pre-collapse) world. Basically, there is no difference between fantasizing about surviving a collapse, in the way popularized by everyone from WND to Sepp Holzer, and fantasizing about retiring young and playing. It is the American wealth fantasy, in which saving and consuming in the right way leads to a life of individual gratification free of commitment and toil. That’s not a realistic approach to a grim future. There are skills worth learning, but they might not be the ones you’re thinking of.

Don’t believe me? Ask your local permaculturist to teach you for free, or pay you for your labor. Or, god-help-us, deed their land holdings to a collective that includes people too young to afford acreage. Wealth and status aren’t a part of the package, they are the package.

You Might Have to Live Like a Refugee

So, what is an ethical soothsayer to do? I do, as mentioned above, still see the future as a rather dark place, with droughts, food shortages, fuel shortages, mass relocation and social dislocation, a world in which consequences are as global as we pretend benefits are today. In fact, like Tom James I literally see visions of this around me today. Its like an overlay, or a double-exposed negative. This is a phenomenon that needs an answer. What to do?

I think the answer is this- instead of dreaming about all the things we would do if we were rich (sustainable gardens, off-grid power, green-built houses), its time to start dreaming about what we would do if we were poor. Not poor like you hate paying your car insurance. Not even poor like Rhyd’s childhood.

Imagine yourself in a refugee camp. For the sake of Americans who have never seen one, some definitions are in order- a refugee camp is not the same as a prison camp, or an internment camp (and there are people who object to the term internment camp altogether). Refugee camps are a concession by a host country to a migrant population that has arrived, fleeing disaster, whether anyone wants them there or not. Refugees are free to come and go as they please, but as they often lack work or housing permits, have only the possessions they carried, and may not speak the language, they have few options for integrating into the host country. Also, they may be at risk from xenophobic elements of the host society.

That said, refugees are no more or less likely to have mental health or substance use problems than anyone else, generally represent a wide range of occupations and skillsets, and are no less likely to build a positive and constructive society within the camp than any other group of humans would be. Generally the host country and international groups (say, the UNHCR) provide basic food, improvised shelter materials, and hygiene, and a thriving economy starts up in and around the camp itself.

And, contrary to what the average survivalist would have you believe, life in a refugee camp can actually be not too terrible. (there are bad examples, but generally refugee camps that are too awful to survive are evacuated.)

So your meditation for today is this: Who would you be in a refugee camp? What if everything you take for granted about material comfort were stripped together, but you were still living with people- initially strangers- in a similar fix with no animus towards you? How would you be happy? How would you become a necessary participant in the social fabric around you? What informal social services could you provide? What do people value you for? Who would you look for- need to find- if you were in a refugee camp? What activities and groups can you simply not live without? How would you seek them out? What can you do now to be a better person later if you end up in a refugee camp? I am telling the truth when I say I contemplate this literally every day.

Why This Matters

As William Gibson says, the future is already here, its just not evenly distributed. If your answer was “I’d run away and live in the woods” then you have more meditation ahead of you. The whole point of the future is that contingency, poverty, and desolation will not longer be things one can avoid by buying out, or living in a “safe” country, or putting a panic room in the basement. The world is full of people who have never had these options and they can be shining role models for you if you choose, but presuming that you will always be exempt is simply no longer acceptable. That is the lesson of the spirit of poverty.

My Answers

People who get my not-infrequent email rants will recognize the following. I came up with three skills that will be useful whoever you are, and however the future turns out near you. They are, in order:

  • Learn, if at all possible, English, Spanish, and Mandarin (Pǔtōnghuà). You don’t have to be literate, just a functional speaker.
  • Play futbol/soccer
  • Learn to share a household with multiple unrelated adults.

To which Storm adds:

  • Figure out a cheap birth control method that works

And also:

  • Learn to make friends with strange dogs

You are free to come up with your own additions. Please feel free to comment or email!

Best,
Anne

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8 thoughts on “Poverty, Wealth and the Future

  1. Hola Anne

    Sensing a certain amount of self-righteousness here, like when you say
    “Ask your local permaculturist to teach you for free, or pay you for your labor. Or, god-help-us, deed their land holdings to a collective that includes people too young to afford acreage.”

    I have to say that I’m probably the sort of person you’re referring to when you talk about the local permaculturist. Yes, I’ve spent ten years exploiting volunteer labour to build our project — or teaching people for free (and giving them food and accommodation to boot) in exchange for their labour, if you want to put it another way. And yes, I do also pay for labour when necessary — as for plumbers and electricians, for instance. But the sort of work that people do willingly as volunteers would sink a project like ours if we had to pay for it by the hour. Is that exploitative? No, I don’t think so, because we are in an economic context where there is a surplus of unemployed young people who’ve been caged in the education system and thus lack the basic knowledge to carry out the tasks needed for survival in any other context but the labour market.

    As for deeding my land to a collective — well, I’d like nothing better than to build a culture of community land management that’s durable enough to sustain that sort of thing. And maybe by the time I die, we’ll have got there. For now, I don’t think the culture is there and I’m certainly not going to give away my land to the sort of neurotic timewasters who infest community projects, who think consensus means the most stubborn person gets their own way. But I do firmly believe in building a democratic culture — just now preparing a public meeting to talk about setting up a democratic school to grow that culture from the ground up.

    In your refugee camp scenario I’d be setting up the composting toilets and waste water recycling systems that allow everyone to survive without getting cholera or diarrhea…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hm.

      “the sort of work that people do willingly as volunteers would sink a project like ours if we had to pay for it by the hour”

      I would think that would be a pretty serious critique, no? On the scale of sustainability, unpaid labor is pretty much on the “not” end. Don’t get me wrong, labor costs are a horror in all sorts of agriculture, but you aren’t talking about a living wage or even ag minimum, you’re saying paying people at all. That’s kind of rough. And then this…

      “unemployed young people who’ve been caged in the education system and thus lack the basic knowledge to carry out the tasks needed for survival”

      Do your employees know you feel this way about them? I mean again, I’ve worked for plenty of farmers who said much the same thing, but even on my rawest day, after dragging my ass back into the truck, they paid me anyway. That’s what a labour market is, after all- I may not have been much, but they were willing to part with a few bucks to keep me around, otherwise I would have gone elsewhere. And if the work needs to get done or the project sinks, well, it seems like its worth it to pay folks, no?

      Like

      • Hi again Anne
        A friend’s tweet nudged me back in the direction of this post and I felt like I should reopen our discussion, despite the substantial time lag…

        You write “there is no difference between fantasizing about surviving a collapse, in the way popularized by everyone from WND to Sepp Holzer, and fantasizing about retiring young and playing.”

        Well, I think there is a fundamental difference. It’s the distinction between working to create the sort of future we want, and trying to merely buy it. Far as I know, Sepp Holzer hasn’t yet bought a Carribean island (admittedly there are certain permaculturists who seem to think that’s a valid goal, but I think they are very much in the minority: http://is.gd/dHP1uU)

        You write “On the scale of sustainability, unpaid labor is pretty much on the “not” end.”

        Well, I disagree. Labours of love are what make the world go around, and have done ever since hunter-gatherer days: people doing what they do for the joy of living, learning and sharing. It’s _paid_ labour that is fundamentally unsustainable.

        I’m not looking down on the people who come and volunteer at our place when I say they are “unemployed young people who’ve been caged in the education system and thus lack the basic knowledge to carry out the tasks needed for survival” — that’s a perfect description of _me_ when I started this project. We’re all on the path. I think, within this context and given the inequality of skills and experience, it’s quite fair to ask people to offer their labour in return for learning (plus food and accommodation, I might add). The majority of our volunteers haven’t complained (as far as I know…)

        …………

        Anyway, this is all a bit of an aside to the main thrust of your post.

        What strikes me is that the assumption of a refugee camp being a place with “people- initially strangers- in a similar fix with no animus towards you” might be the fundamental point at issue here.

        I mean to say, given what we know about societies, it is safe to assume that the power structures in the host country are going to propagate down into the refugee camp, with the refugees on the bottom rung (or rungs, rather — hierarchies being quickly established within the camp itself). From what little I know about real camps in places from Congo to Calais, I think this is true.

        Turning this around, if we can imagine a refugee camp in which this is _not_ the case, but where people really do collaborate with no animus towards each other (rather than try to climb the ladder on top of each other’s suffering bodies), then we’ve imagined a utopia. Any material wants will soon be sorted out by the collective skills of the residents, who can then dedicate their time to having fun. Basically, we’re talking about a huge, endless free festival where everyone’s an organiser and you don’t have to pay to get in. Let me know where I can get a ticket!

        Like

  2. Pingback: Trying Again | More Crows than Eagles

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