Tuesday, 13 October 2009

(Monday) I've been thinking....

People started out as opportunistic hunter-gatherers.  They were a part of the ecosystem.  The amount of energy that it took to survive had to be supplied by the food that they obtained, just like any other animal.  There was no surplus.

When people left the "hunter-gatherer" lifestyle and began an agricultural lifestyle, there were a number of significant changes.  They were able to build permanent communities and housing.  They could maintain more possessions.  Tasks became more varied.  It is also true that by means of agriculture, a person could produce a surplus of food so that the surplus labour enabled production of other goods as well.
People were able to make most of the things that they needed.  They may have co-operated on larger projects such as building houses or community requirements and surplus labour could be put to other purposes such as building pyramids, cathedrals, raising stone-henge or Easter Island statues, supporting emperors and eventually paying taxes.  But most people still made much of what they needed.
Trade among people who know each other and are more or less of equal status is easily achieved.  Even now, when one has a surplus of fruit or vegetables from the back yard, they are easily shared around, and there is an unspoken understanding that a reciprocal deal might occur at a later time... it's an informal barter system.   Cottage industries no doubt flourished in agricultural communities, so that barter, trade and local currencies were easy to arrange.
With specialisation of labour and skills that comes about with a more complicated, industrial lifestyle, the informal barter system becomes more and more complicated also.  At its extreme, one might not even know the person that is needed for a particularly specialised job of work.  Money is necessary to facilitate this form of barter.  
Agencies that facilitate the bartering by the distribution of wealth become very powerful.  Hunter-gatherers have ritual distribution of wealth (food) according to rules made by the most powerful people.   In agricultural communities this was achieved by offering the food to the religious leaders who distributed what remained (after the gods had had their share) to the community, thus making the religious leaders very powerful.  As communities became more complicated,  and wealth was represented by money, its distribution after taxation was determined by governments and banks which have become more and more powerful.  People surrendered their surplus production to the controlling power.  
Industrialisation has compounded the difficulties for people to maintain any sort of control over what they produce.  Many jobs are so obscure that they are only meaningful when performed in association with many other people who jointly produce an outcome such as a car or a televison set.  This kind of production is very efficient in terms of producing wealth, despite the lack of personal satisfaction for individuals in the system who don't necessarily see much in the way of results for their efforts.  
In recent years this means of production has been taken to an extreme.  Not only do people see little of substance for their efforts,  but they assume that they are incapable of meeting their needs by any other means than obtaining money.  Since money becomes the lifeline and means of survival,  it takes on a significance that is beyond its real utility.  People seem to be willing to do anything to get money!
In modern communities, people's status is measured by the amount of money that they have.  Even the deaths of poor people are not as significant as the deaths of the wealthy.  Without money,  survival becomes difficult and life is risky.  Money is actually more important than people.  This has led to some incredible difficulties and such disempowerment that the lack of control that so many people experience makes them depressed and physically ill.  Modern society doesn't seem to be working, at least not for the benefit of the majority of people.
Most people seem have some vague, natural understanding of this. Perhaps we are "hardwired" to understand this argument.  There are few who don't recognise the wisdom of the following words,  attributed to Chief Seattle, from his speech made in 1854...
“Only when the last tree has died, and the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realise that we cannot eat money.”  
I live on an acre of reasonable land.  When I moved to my house (which is situated in the middle of that acre) I was advised by a number of people to subdivide the block, build several houses and "make" money.  I suppose I could have.   Instead,  I spent time and effort improving the soil so that now,  I am able to grow most of what I need and, if it became necessary, I could "live off the land" as well as making most of the other things that I might need.  I am sure that other people might not choose to live as I do,  but having control over my life and health is more important than  the status that might be gained by a greater amount of money. 
There is added urgency to my plans in recent times. 
We have passed peak oil.  Modern industrial society is dependent on the supply of cheap   energy that has been available for only 150 years, though that seems to be long enough for a complete change in priorities.  The environment is changing, the climate is warming and the reduction of fuel consumption is essential for this reason as well. The economy,  based on money, has corrupted our collective thinking to such an extent that some believe that money is more important than people.  Perhaps they will eventually realise that,  in the words of Seattle,  they "cannot eat money."   
I am not any more certain of the future than anyone else,  but the satisfaction of being able to provide for most of my needs by my own efforts is important.  This is the strategy that informs the movements towards more resilient and self sufficient communities like those described by the Transition Town movement.  There will be changes to the way we live in the future and, while change can be hard to deal with sometimes,  much of this change will be for the better.  

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