What in the present will work
in the future?

Douglass Carmichael
Strategy Consultant
Institute for New Economic Thinking

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Obviously the solidity of the future has fallen away like a sandcastle on the beach as the unthinking tide comes creeping up. Climate disruption, inequality and the weakness of government put the future in doubt. Much is up for rethinking.

This is both scary and compelling because we are stuck with longstanding problems that we needed to face anyway. The sciences, social sciences, humanities and good journalism are all needed to help us understand, and our actions are needed to force change despite reluctance to change.

It is difficult to predict the future, but we know certain things. CO2 emissions will continue to rise for a while and global temperatures will increase. This will lead to some level of social disruption, depending on cascading breakdowns. Some people may have to just pick up and move to more viable climate niches. Or maybe we will avoid this by developing new technologies and a circular economy where what is used is reused. Either way there will be much head scratching as we figure out what of what we have now will fit in the emerging future. The most important advice is: Build for flexibility and be ready to care for those who are harmed by the transitions.

The two most obvious and contradictory trends are toward decentralization—either in the hands of global elites or local communities. The first will try to extract wealth and avoid dealing with climate turbulence, while the second will create good initiatives that don’t scale. Both are likely to unfold at the same time, making life especially complex as we realize that old habits will not work and we try to change but not change at the same time.

A year ago we hoped for some developments of the commons—a shared space where peace prevails and quality of life beyond GDP would flourish once we banished conflict and embraced appreciation and cooperation with others.

With a rising tide of trouble in the past year—along with rising temperatures that neither crops nor people can survive—migrants are moving north with hopes for a better life. They—and maybe us—desperately need to find “an elsewhere” to be able to carry on.

Many of us may have to move. Those of us fortunate to still live in viable niches will need to help those on the move, meeting them with food, a place to rest and other assistance, not guns. This will be difficult because both those moving and those staying in place will feel disoriented and scared. Many will try to reconstruct the world we are losing rather than feel refreshed by new possibilities. We will hold on to private property without realizing that the material world was once a shared world. People will try to reconstruct old hierarchies and power relationships until they get ridiculed or hunger drives cooperation.

In our early human history we were nomads—hunters and gatherers. We may now need to remember how to do these things. There is tremendous renewed interest in archaeology and anthropology focused on the lives of hunter-gatherers who resisted settlement for 200,000 years and lived on varied diets of fish, turtles, birds, nuts, roots and fruits with large seasonal variations as they moved about. They sang, told stories, gossiped and, anthropologists tell us, lived fairly relaxed lives with plenty of social interaction. There is much about these nomads from the distant past that we can carry with us to our benefit.

A simple life is not less but rather more complex. Consider the difference between waking up to a breakfast of toast, eggs and coffee compared to having to open a trap to take out a fish or a rabbit and then clean it and cook it on a hot stone. Early humans had a much more complex diet than we do—consuming a hundred different types of animals and several hundred plants. But surprisingly, they also had more leisure time and more time together for talking, perhaps singing. Storytelling as an essential part of language emerged during this time.

So we may be on the move—some of us yes, some no. Imagine a sudden break in food supply chains or the failure of the electricity grid due to extreme heat conditions. Under threat, key people who manage daily life may not show up for their jobs. Immediately, we realize that the life we have been living is not viable. But since we are not prepared for this, it will be difficult to selectively choose what to take and what to leave behind. Space will be too expensive to maintain at liveable temperatures. Transportation will be limited. Uber won’t answer a phone you can’t charge.

One initiative that could help is the “small house.” Recently, I met with a group that is developing small houses on wheels to get some control over the impact of wildfires on the West Coast. It will be important to understand what kind of communities and settings emerge with small house clusters. In a way it is doll house individualism—a form of carrying on that might preserve the worst of individualism by preventing a sense of community. But we will learn as we go.

For example, in showing that sane responses are possible, a friend suggests not a final solution, but a plausible next step for some:

“...treat the southern border as a training ground for refugees. Using supervisors, have the refugees build their dwellings and do farming near the border. Use their current skills and teach them further in health, child care, education, carpentry, farming, animal husbandry. They should elect their leaders and set up their own court systems with US supervision. In time, send them back to operate their home societies. As new refugees arrive, earlier arrivals would return home. Hence the southern border would be much like a high school or junior college. We would protect refugees from violence and abuse while training them in the skills needed to operate their home societies.”

In 2020 our focus at the CfC symposium was on the concept of “fix in place”—make better, develop up, lift up others. But now we are forced to search for clues as to where to go and how.

Last year I wrote:

What are “commons”? We need to understand that they are part of a different way of experiencing the world. Just as in a dance you need to be aware of your partner, in a society with a strong commons, cooperation emerges as a kind of dance with others, with lots of intuition for others. Commons and cooperation replaces consumerism and isolation. There is a major psychological difference between walking on land that is collectively ours and land that is owned by another.

This year is different.

What has changed is that ownership seems like a vanishing reality. People move not to possess the land but to leave it. It will be yet a different dance we have to join in with increasing emphasis on helping others. Last year we proposed that commons and cooperation replaced consumerism. These are good values.

But a commons-rich community allows many to remain passive; the challenges ahead probably will not. We will be known not by where we are but by who we are. People tend to respond well to the early phases of a crisis. The danger is that frustration will erode ethics. In response people will become expert at judging character as the situation becomes more chaotic. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm talked about the difference between those who are life-affirming and those who are actually hostile to life. The balance in emerging groups will have a major impact on what living through the crisis will be like.

What will replace rebuilding the village—a village we can’t take with us? Get used to encampments. Clean up and be prepared to move again. Realize that any emerging community needs you. Don’t think this is simpler. When we are coping with everything at once the complexity increases.

As you know from a camping trip, setting up a tent while it’s raining or looking for soft branches to sleep on is more complex than the daily life we have been living. We need skills.  The Knowledge, an amazingly challenging book by Lewis Dartnell, makes it pretty clear that we don’t know how to do much. Your jeans are wearing out? Can you replace them? What about facing a live chicken? Will we remember books or revert to an oral culture? Will our laptops remain viable? Is there an Internet? Will we have the courage to embrace our ignorance? Or collapse under the enormity of the tasks? It is worth exploring trailer camps to get a feel for what can and can’t be done.

How to find good in this future? Like many of us, long before COVID you may have chosen to simplify your life anyway—and that was good preparation for what is coming. First, of course, is leaving behind, jettisoning stuff. I remember reading a Japanese writer who said, “Tithe new tech, take it apart, see how it works, and get rid of it, only replacing it if it seemed really worth it. If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it. If, surprised, you need it again, rebuy it then. You will be smarter and lighter.” (Just a reminder: tithe usually refers to 10 percent of your income.)

A vision for the future gives encouragement and a guide orienting efforts and a scale for judging success. Constantly looking at how our efforts blend the need to grow food close to where we live can create communities where leisure is possible and culture has a place. You cannot grow lettuce next to where you live without being aware of what it looks and feels like, and how it should taste.

Remember, there are millions of migrants each with stories, many at the edge of human endurance—or over that edge. Remember Odysseus and Don Quixote. They all need us.

Magazines like Architectural Digest feature houses with many rooms filled with stuff, often art made by unknown people, purchased with an agent. Rarely is that house treated as a studio where people make their own art. It is just dead space. Most of our 1%ers lost their capacity for imagination in the pursuit of excessive economic security. They lost the simple courage to make something.

Let’s try to nudge them back to being creators. Perhaps we can find that making art means we don’t have to take so much with us. We can make our world—a poem on a scrap of paper, a pile of stones in an arrangement to be left behind for others, flowers pulled into a bouquet, carved wood or interestingly laid-out gardens.

“One for whom a pebble has value must be surrounded by
treasures wherever he goes.”

—Pär Lagerkvist

The need to move that has already come for millions will remind us that in order to cope humans have always moved—from out of Africa through Asia across the islands connecting northern China with what became Alaska. They trekked to northern Europe, and others—boat smart and sky savvy—moved across the Pacific.

Work to be in alignment with the facts and attuned to the efforts of others. Don’t go rogue. Work to feel good and realize that being together in exploration and experimentation in how to live is more important than being on our own little island of concepts. Survival culture may lead us to renewed awe at the universe and appreciation of all things. Each person is a rich character. Each animal is a world of feeling and perception. And remember, bad things make great stories.

Travel light with a big heart and a rich memory. And again, remember Odysseus and Don Quixote—and Stephen Dedalus, who said in Ulysses, “I go forth to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” Prufrock and Musil’s important Man without Qualities: everyone.

. We will try to find ways to live in the skeleton of a dying society. It might work as we camp out in highrises. More likely is that we try to build smaller and follow the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement: “A democratic architecture for a democratic America.”  

But maybe we have to go even smaller. Most people live in spaces smaller than a small house. Maybe what is coming breaks them free from such constraints.

This moving on reminds us that humans always had to decide what to carry forward to carry on, not just in the afterlife but in this one.

“We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe.”

—Christopher Alexander

Carrying on implies positive forward motion towards a shared goal. But maybe sometimes we need to stop carrying on, stop moving forward. Our healthcare system carries on despite its dysfunctionality, leaving patients and nurses alike feeling defeated in its wake.

Who will carry nurses when the weight of healthcare becomes too heavy? At some point the healers whom we all relied on so heavily in 2020 will need to be healed. True healing cannot occur by just carrying on. Rest and reflection are needed to sustain the nursing profession. Without nurses, healthcare may be poised for an even greater loss than the one COVID-19 inflicted on us all.   

2020 Contribution: Expanding the Commons While Taming the Capital

︎︎︎ Painting by Douglass Carmichael