NOTE: Make sure you read the first three posts (in order!) before tackling the rest, or it could be confusing: Post 1 is Designing the future, Post 2 is Setting up the problem, and Post 3 is Estimating basic requirements.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Peak Oil Money

An article at LiveScience today discussed the results of a study showing that even thinking about money can lead to a reduction in selfless behaviors, even when the selfless activity has nothing to do with competition for wealth. It's unfortunate that we're wired this way, but it's something to consider when trying to build community. How can we encourage our neighbors to emphasize cooperation over competition?

The response from some will be "well, just do away with money altogether!", but I would contend that any measure of wealth would elicit the same primal instincts (this is a totally unproven hypothesis, but it seems likely to me). Wealth can be measured in land, trees, gold, energy, goats, or barbie dolls, it all depends on the culture of the social group. Even a small community of sustainble-minded Peak Oilers would not be immune. So given the idea that we can't live without some drive for the acquisition of wealth, how can we manage it to become a positive factor for sustainability and the community at-large?

My personal ideas for solutions to this innate human quality is to instill a sense of community with frequent social gatherings and encouraging daily personal visits to the homes of other community members. Such actions seem so simple, but I think go a long way in distracting from self-enriching behaviors to community-enriching behaviors. I know there are even better ideas out there than this; anyone care to share?


At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

If a community is being built from scratch, it can be designed in such a way that daily social interactions are for the most part unavoidable. Everyone needs some alone time, so a design should allow for that as well. I too would encourage frequent social gatherings in addition to a socially inherent design as they are a healthy aspect of any community.

With respect to wealth as a primal instinct (or urge), this is a learned behavior and not part anyone's genetic makeup. As such it can be unlearned. The pursuit of wealth is the result of self-preservation (one of the four primal urges) by a person who lives in a society in which each member is dependant a monetary system, even for basic survival.

I believe one way to encourage community-enriching behaviors is to hold our environment in the highest regard. A central theme of new communities should be that a higher value be placed on our environment than is placed on ourselves. This can be a dramatic mind shift for many, if not most Americans whose lives revolve around money with little regard for the environment.

Money will still be required. So long as there are governments that need resources from outside their political boundaries, money will be needed. If for nothing more than property taxes, any community built within most governments’ boundaries will also need money. An exception to requiring money is within a community itself.

Within a community, if it chooses to do so, money and trading can be eliminated by implementing a cooperative in which everyone is provided for by the community. The community as a whole would still need to raise money to pay taxes and purchase supplies and materials, but these things would be owned and shared equally by the community.

Some people may believe that when setting up a new community it must be economically attractive if others are to be drawn to it. I would argue the opposite. I believe there are many people who have grown tired of the rat race that seems to be growing more competitive every day, and therefore think the elimination of money and competition could act as central selling points.

A growing trend may shed some light on this. A New York Times article explains how and why many men are leaving the work force.

The article points out that most of these men – in their prime - lost their jobs and chose not to reenter the work force because it meant taking a cut of some kind. Although most of the men could have found new work they chose leisure time instead.

I don't see this as laziness, but instead people who value themselves in ways other than social status (that in America is defined primarily by ones career). In a society revolving around money this may be an economically poor choice, but at the same time could be a mentally healthy one.

Eliminating competition encourages community-enriching behaviors in that in doing so cooperation becomes essential. Cooperation lends itself to community-enriching behaviors when everyone has a vested interest in the communities’ activities. For example, let’s say a post-peak oil community decides to raise sheep because they provide wool, sheep skin and meat. Looking at just the wool, there are numerous tasks performed to turn raw wool into useable products. First, the sheep must be carefully tended to in order to protect the wool. Then it’s sheared, cleaned, spun into thread or yarn, woven into cloth, and finally knitted or tailored into the end products. Because so many steps are needed to produce end products, and assuming most steps will be performed by people who specialize in them, a great deal of cooperation is required to ensure high quality end products that are valued by all in the community.

The same can be said about growing food. There are a lot steps involved here that will require cooperation. There’s the management of the soil and pests, planting seeds, tending to the crops, harvesting, storing and preserving and finally preparation. Assuming a tractor won’t be used and you’re feeding over 300 mouths, a number of people will be required to ensure the community always has food so no goes hungry.

When the values towards our environment are placed front and center, and people work cooperatively, I believe selflessness will have a tendency to melt away on its own. This requires a mind set vastly different then the one we’re all use to. But I still wonder if people are willing to give up much of their materialist ways and work physically harder then they’re use to even it they know it can lead to a more enriching life experience.

At 8:35 PM, Blogger DJEB said...

I agree with Jeff. When designing, the primary concern for those of us in temperate areas is solar gain. That said, we can design for maximum "social gain," as Jeff says. For this, I highly recommend A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein.

And again I agree when Jeff says that greed is not part of one's genetic makeup. However, I find it to be a huge stumbling block in North America. Those of us trying to design communities in Canada or America have our work cut out for us.

Reading sites like this and comments like Jeff's gives me hope, though. We obviously are on the same page and have the same goals. Unfortunately, however, we are separated by geography. The key is to find and cooperate with like-minded people on our own areas.

At 10:08 PM, Blogger PeakEngineer said...

I definitely see it as a struggle finding the right strategy to transition to a truly sustainable community from our current energy-intensive existences.

Assuming we have time before major decline from the energy peak, it will take careful planning on the part of all community members to change lifestyles in a way that builds up the post-Peak oil community.

My initial feelings are that each family should grow at least most of their own food to ensure diversity of skills and universal ability for people to provide for themselves. Everything else is gravy...but it would be nice if someone in the community figured out how to make computers out of sand and old tires so I can keep blogging for decades to come :)

At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Jeff said...

Djeb, thanks for the book recommendation, and the three links on the other post. I noticed you’re a permaculture designer. Just out of curiosity, have you worked on any urban/rural permaculture projects?

PeakEngineer, I think we have very different ideas on how a new community is started. I was hoping you could give me a better idea of what your thoughts are. Based on your last post I get the impression you'd like to start a community where everyone retains their traditional jobs working for an employer. The community would only provide housing and and a place for people to grow most of their own food. Is that about the gist of it?


At 9:28 AM, Blogger DJEB said...

Jeff, because of where I have been living, most of my projects have been urban - very small scale in Tokyo and slightly larger in Toronto. I have done a rural project in the countryside in Japan and done some consulting on other rural projects.

Next year I begin the search for a degraded piece of land to rehabilitate and build a home on. On the land, I'm hoping to build a showcase system like Joe Polaischer's place in New Zealand only in a cold temperate setting.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger PeakEngineer said...


I'm trying not to limit myself to one particular scenario, as the focus of this blog is to provide methods for analyzing and designing for a specific set of circumstances. In addition, every community will deviate from a plan to some degree, and the emphasis should be on flexibility.

If I appear to be vague on my ideas here for transition to a sustainable community, it's because I haven't committed to one particular line of thought. In some instances, a group could possibly make the jump from plugged-in professionals spread across the world to a tight-knit powered-down community in short order. In more cases, the community will be built slowly, one family at a time using their off-work hours, adjusting slowly to an agrarian-based life. In even more cases, communities will be formed of refugees from a declining economy forced to bind to one another in order to build some makings of self-sufficiency. We must have ideas on how to proceed in each case, because we can't know how these ravaging crises we face will unfold.

I keep trying to reinforce that the important concepts here are the processes, the intellectual architecture that you can call upon even if everything goes to hell overnight. Alongside this are the specific design solutions that you can apply after you identify your needs. At this point, I don't think we've even clearly defined our needs, and I fear we're entering into debates about how to enact a solution before we understand the underlying circumstances and goals.

I haven't read any permaculture books yet (I really should), but I think a lot of concrete ideas for building this sort of thing may be found there. What we must consider, however, is what to do when things deviate from the plans: non-contributing individuals, feelings of animosity, interactions with the non-sustainable world, war...

No matter what, the first step to building community is building ideas. Perhaps we should lay out various specific scenarios for forming communities and write up requirements leading to recruitment and retainment strategies in each case. From there we might be able to generalize. Thoughts?

At 7:25 PM, Blogger DJEB said...

On the last paragraph, there is a friend of mine in Brisbane who is a permaculturist working as manager of an eco community. One thing that they found that actually attracted more people was to create an extensive list of rules clearly defining what residents could and could not do. The more structure they had, they more they were interested in living in the community.

For a community to be truly sustainable, there are going to have to be things that people are restricted from doing. Just as one example, imagine what would happen if one person insisted on his "freedom" to do as he pleased and overgrazed 1) his own pasture, or 2) the commons. In the first case, the community is now forced to keep this individual alive (assuming they don't make some sort of stew out of him). In the second case, the entire community is now put at threat.

How many North Americans have no idea what "rights" are (i.e. that they are equalisers, not privileges granting one licence to trample others), or no idea what "freedom" is (i.e. that it does not mean freedom from responsibility) despite shouting loudly about both? Although this is diving deep into philospohical territory, these are serious stumbling blocks to be faced before building a functioning community. It may be that when faced with such troublesome individuals, they must be excluded.

At 11:43 AM, Anonymous Jeff said...

I'm unable to determine if building a sustainable community should begin with how the community is formed, however I have been leaning towards the rarer case of rounding up the most needed people before breaking ground. I tend to think designing a community should come prior to deciding how it is formed.

What I keep bumping up against is what exactly should be designed for. If a design allows for a worst case scenario - hell overnight - to what degree will that impact the initial design, and will that design be attractive to others? In other words, can you design for a worst case scenario that's attractive today?

Boeing is working on their new DreamLiner jets. Jets lend themselves nicely to systems engineering because they're so complex. Here, Boeing knows exactly what they want before going to production. When designing a community that anticipates future events it's difficult to determine what will be required.

I've been asking myself a number of questions. Will the transportation infrastructure collapse? Will governments and economic systems collapse? How readily available will supplies and materials be? How will communication systems be affected? These are all unknowns.

So ultimately I've been left with the question how fast can transition take place within a community, even if you design for it? I don't have an answer, and I don't know enough about systems engineering to determine if it alone is a flexible enough tool.
That's what's been bringing me to this site; how to use systems engineering to design a community. I was really hoping that everything discussed here would revolve directly around the homestead project and seeing that project grow and mature as more systems engineering concepts are introduced. I went out and looked a couple of systems engineering books, but this topic to date is only written around business practices and I found it difficult while sitting in bookshops to extract the core concepts of systems engineering from the business aspects. So I've been looking here, and to you, to do that extracting. You're in a unique position to use your professional experience and apply it in a way that maybe no one else has. So far, systems engineering seems like a perfect methodology.

And Djeb, thanks for your insight on rules. I've toiling over rules knowing they'll be needed but really felt a lot of rules would have been a deterrent, not a magnet. I was both surprised and pleased to hear about this. It makes sense though as we are creatures of habit who resist change and prefer structure in our lives.

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