Dragging the Demons with us into a Sustainable Future

Posted on August 13, 2010 by Amy Lenzo

Photo by Amy Lenzo

by Ben de Vries
As we take control of the course of our lives and communities to create new more viable futures for ourselves, problems emerging from the existing system(s) may follow us if we let them. Our current capitalist, militarist, imperialist system is based upon a hierarchy of those with capital and power exploiting those who don’t. This hierarchy pervades every aspect of our existence so long as we are living by it, and the problem I wish to address in this article is features of this system that might be carried into future systems, and the difficulties interfacing any new system into the existing one.

Let us begin with the ‘have and have not’ problem which I have observed carried into intentional communities old and new, and projects, no matter how egalitarian the verbal agreements may be. This same problem exists on all scales from macro to micro. Some examples…

A new intentional community is formed by a group of people who wish to create an alternative lifestyle to the one that they find themselves in. Depending on their previous situation, their assets may be different from one another, and their ability to contribute in skill and material may vary widely. In a capitalist system, this will create a hierarchy based on capital. The ability to purchase shares with money determines the degree of control one has in a corporation.

So let us look at the members of our hypothetical community and their possible contributions, and problems that may result from their variance.

One person has a truck- let’s say the only one for use by the community and its’ members. This places the truck owner firmly in control of transportation logistics for the entire community, with no competition. Ideally, this would result in greatly increased efficiency for the entire community. Tragically, this person usually turns into a supply despot, and has final veto over supplies for plans that even the rest of the community agrees with.

Another person has contributed the land for the project. In the capitalist world, this person controls the entire operation unless there is some agreement on paper which agrees that there is ANY value to any other services, labor a foremost example. Many such operations already exist, and function at or near the feudal level, with any labor, no matter how skilled, being treated as slaves. Any complaint, the slaves are evicted. So now what began as an egalitarian minded project turns into a fiefdom with the land owner using fear of relocation for coercion. Sound familiar?

Then there is control of liquid capital. If this is not had by all, then this puts the controller or controlling group in the position of dictator. I went to a green technology expo, and saw the usual run of products etc. and ran into a booth where a spokesgirl was proclaiming, “We are building the largest sustainable community in the world!” A tall claim indeed, and using the most abused greenwashing word possible. I asked her “who is your agricultural systems designer?” “I don’t know” (you don’t have one). “How will you handle your waste streams?” “The Mexican government is building us a sewer system!” (Great! Starting at a type 1 error, mixing feces with drinking water. In a dry climate no less. Mexico is historic for having the worst sewer system explosions, anywhere. And a yummy waste water plant to top it off! Didn’t even mention about say a bottle re-use program, but of course, if you have no plan for food, you have no plan for its’ distribution.) Turning back to the crowd, she says “It will be the best in sustainable resort style living!” “Last question” I say “ Will the owners build their own homes?” “Oh, no. That will be done by the people in the neighboring village.” (Enslave the local populace to carry out your construction, and probably agriculture, waste water treatment plant, and all the rest of the jobs tourists don’t want to get their hands into.)

Under the guise of sustainability, another piece of abusive tract housing. The result of capital control over labor once again. Capital control over design process. Probably capital control of silent Mexican national land owning partner.

Even if the technical matters of agricultural and waste processing management are dealt with in perfect harmony, who is doing the work? Will there be a ‘ruling class’, and if so, based on what? Or will all members have an equal say?

A technocracy is a system of hierarchy based on ability. This of course results in a ‘have and have not’ of class based on ability, usual technical. At its’ extreme, individuals who are able to demonstrate ability early in life are allocated resources, while those who lag behind are doomed to a life of unskilled labor and minimal resources, and there certainly is little place for the handicapped, ‘storage’ at best.

Cooperation is certainly a key tenet of permaculture based cultures. How that may be achieved given the pressures of the existing cultural and government structures and hierarchies is a different matter entirely, especially in the US. The results of competition based culture are obvious: homelessness/dispossession, a high enough crime rate that it is classed as a ‘low level war zone’ by the UN, and increasing levels of mental illness and the inability to cope with an ever complexifying society.

There is a formula which I particularly like, from John Muir “the Velvet Monkey Wrench” that goes thus: (number of hours worked) x (skill coefficient) x (dirty coefficient) x (dangerous coefficient). Using this formula to define not only ‘pay’ but also contributory voting weight might solve the problem. Consider, a sanitation worker may not have a high skill coefficient, but is near the top of dirty and dangerous (pathogens). A doctor may have no dirty or low dangerous coefficient, but a very high skill coefficient, and so on. These two are at either end of the same cycle, one of prevention, the other of treatment. Is one more important than the other? Or perhaps someone who values their free time or time with family more than their voting weight or economic return?

In the US, sustainability gets a lot of lip service, but, sadly, in my experience, not much real action. A lot of fundraising for causes happens, but the development except in a few isolated areas (Willits?) is sorely negligent. There are never any job listings as such, and those few are ‘follow your passion’ salaries (slim to none). Another problem in this regard is the ‘over papering effect’, that of a hierarchical glut of ‘qualified’ personnel who have yards of certifications, but little practical experience.  The devaluation of practical experience is typical of most hierarchies. There is even most often an economic barrier to entry from existing sustainable communities, a membership fee.

FROM the US, expatriate work, is also difficult to obtain. One obvious barrier to entry in this is travel expense. From my previous home in San Francisco, California I did a tremendous search for any available opportunities abroad, and for years found nothing. Finally, someone sent me an email which called for ‘sustainable agriculture engineers’. You can imagine my excitement, and direct work for the US government. Agroforestry in the Midwest to control flooding and aquifer recharge? No. Urban community garden developer? No. Rangeland gabion development in Texas to improve stock weight and control erosion? No. Rural development in Appalachia or some other country? No. The listing shocked and horrified me. It didn’t specify duties beyond ‘develop sustainable agriculture systems in dry lands’. The location? Afghanistan, with whom we are at war. A suicide mission. The pay? $50,000 a year. Good for a nice domestic job, but not so for a destroyed war zone where kidnapping or outright murder are likely outcomes. Meanwhile, a food service worker, for Halliburton, in Iraq is making $150,000 serving US soldiers their dinners. To me, this sends a very strong message about what the ‘establishment’ thinks about us.

In sum, it is back to the same problem, the ‘haves’ being able to do as they please, the ‘have nots’ facing near insurmountable barriers to entry, or becoming the feudal vassals of the ‘haves’ to even get a peaceful, sustainable lifestyle.

How we get around these issues will no doubt be on a case-by-case basis, and vary widely from group to group, or as individuals. I merely wish to raise these questions to provoke thought, and hopefully activate the ‘ounce of prevention department’ wherever it may lie.

Ben de Vries
Certified Permaculture Designer

What Others Are Saying

  1. E. Daniel Ayres December 19, 2013 at 6:56 am

    Well stated. Keep up the good work Ben.

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