Transitional Turmoil

We are at the end of a long era, with a new one emerging. There will be much turmoil, much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

There will also be many new beginnings made.

Where We’re Coming From

We’re coming from an era that exalted the big, in all its forms. Big governments, big corporations, big unions, big institutions were just one part of this. We raised high the banner of growing, growing, growing: bigger was always a sign of better.

This led us to consolidate everything into fewer and fewer parts. I spent Saturday and Sunday on Jane’s Walks in Toronto. The evidence of “organisations past” was all around me, names I grew up with but which are now gone, merged or driven from the scene. Others are still around, but have changed their nature dramatically as they “scaled up”.

Inside these organizations, paradoxically, their size limited opportunities. So credentialism snuck in the door: a job that required Grade 13 forty years ago now requires a professional masters’ degree plus three industry certifications. Same job, but all those extra credentials have justified a deeper hierarchy, with higher rungs opened up for promotions.

Wasteful practices, those: perfectly good people are shelved into the lower rungs of the service economy or permanent underemployment, while, in many cases, jobs go begging when they need to be filled (the candidate pool that matches the over-qualifications is small).

Meanwhile, over the past thirty years, much of the so-called “growth” has in fact been the accumulation of debt. Debt on company balance sheets from acquisitions (or being acquired: it was Canadian capital that has mostly been used to buy up Canadian companies from outside the country, then stick the debt on the subsidiary’s balance sheet to avoid Canadian taxes. Talk about buying your own deindustrial revolution!

Debt piled up in our governments. Debt piled up in our companies, in our institutions, in our social order. More debt — more than twice as much debt, in fact — than the estimated value of the entire planet.

If you think this is ever going to be paid off, you’re obviously not able to add two plus two and get four on a reliable basis. That you believe it, I understand: your own sense of security for your own future demands that you do. But that you would think it? How very Orwellian!

No wonder more and more of us love Big Brother!

This is a game of “last man standing”. Can the system be patched again, and again? Can, at the same time, I outlast the others and pick up a few more trinkets for a song in the fire sale? (That would make for “growth”.)

So, of course, would layoffs. So the transition would continue …

Where We Could Be Going

Now the venturous amongst us, and the lovers of technology, point to one or another discovery, demonstration or start up, and say “not to worry, the future’s well in hand”.

The cheap resources are mostly consumed? Don’t worry: we can frack shales, dig up bitumens, drill halfway to the mantle on the open ocean floor: we’ve got the smarts, we’ve got the tools.

They forget, of course, just how expensive all this is, and how much of our capital rests on the thin reed that that debt mountain will be paid in full with interest and thus is “worth something”.

They also forget, of course, that demonstration scale projects don’t necessarily scale up. Or that we’re not finding big masses worthy of capital investment but instead a bit here, a bit there, so that we need many more investments to extract the same amount.

In high-tech land, the gadgets, apps and websites flow freely — and are valued highly — but aren’t exactly dealing in essentials.

Fertilizers, motorized farm instruments, transportation webs, the power grid, a long list of other things are more essential than the latest phone, pad, or Facebook update. Not that you’d know that by valuations, column inches or hype.

Here’s the bottom line: yes, there are many things we can do better that would keep much of what we have going. You listen to a Gunter Pauli speak about rebuilding the economy, hear him ask simple questions like “why do solar photovoltaic cells work on both sides but we only use one?” or “why do we throw this in the landfill when it could be used here?” and you see all sorts of possibilities for the techno-future.

It’s a race, though, between good ideas scaling up (against the organized might of “the big” incumbents, a sea of regulations, planning permissions, environmental reviews, and a lack of money enough that’s patient enough to make a difference) and the ancien ordre ramping down for capital starvation in a debt crisis.

“Peak capital” outweighs even “peak energy”, at least for now.

Companies, of course, will keep searching for ever cheaper labour (who cares what happens to the workers they currently have), ever more automation to remove labour, ever more acquisitions to remove competition and increase scale.

Governments are the ones up against the wall. Until, of course, they recognize that the corporatist agenda is hurting them too much — at which point they will seize control again.

Autarky will return as needed. (It will return wherever a domino falls off Mount Debt-of-Doom, too.)

You and I? We’re afterthoughts.

Where We Should Go

Reinventing — from the bottom up — our neighbourhoods is where we should begin.

Break zoning: monocultures of any sort make no sense. If people can walk to work, walk to get supplies, walk to socialize, they are not only healthier (yet another cost savings in a world where money is precious) their cost just to get by went way down.

So offices and small light manufacturing mixed with housing and shops. Yea, verily!

Break saving: stop thinking about savings as money, and think about it instead as time and relationships. It’s worth a few pennies extra to patronize Joe and Jenna in their small shops instead of jumping in the car to go to the Supercentre and buy at the hypermarket. (It matters not whether the name on the door is WalMart, E. Leclerc, Superstore, or Tesco: sit down with two or three years’ worth of register tapes and a big spreadsheet, figure out what you paid, and add in the cost of maintaining your own transportation to and from the place and its operating costs. The small store on the corner, run by a neighbour, is competitive, just in different ways.

We need as well to think more carefully about the “how we live” question. Do I need all the space I have? Do I need all the things I have? Would a neighbourhood co-op setup for tools make more sense: a block buys one mower, one set of shears, one wheelbarrow, etc.

We need to think about things we can bring to our community. In the institutional world, I’m not “allowed” to teach: I don’t have the credentials, I’m not a member of the union, and the province doesn’t want me designing curriculum (that’s their job) or teaching individuals (“Verboten! Social promotion and social groups outweigh individuals!”). In my neighbourhood, on the other hand, there are subjects I can teach. You can, too.

There are skills to pass on, skills to apply with others. If we stop thinking about money, and start thinking about time and relationships, it’s not even taxable.

Which is good, because as money becomes more precious, governments will demand more of ours. That’s not a prediction, it’s a flat-out guarantee. Governments, after all, are institutions designed to work with other institutions, who will plead for their bail-out, their grant, their special need. You and I are chaff, a used ballot paper, and a place to get money from, no more.

Break bigness: if you do build a business, keep it small. Turn your energy into making things better, not bigger. A better workplace: what, pray tell, is wrong with the idea of a six hour work day if an innovation allows you to cut two hours out of the time it takes to do something? A better product, one that uses less energy, is more repairable, lasts longer, is made with more care. Better service: yes, I install; yes, I teach you how to use it; yes, you’re welcome to talk without buying.

An independent consultant learns the lesson early: at any point in time, they only need one customer. Yes, they have to think ahead about “who, next?” … but again, they only need one in the queue called “next”. Small isn’t bad.

Stop thinking that you have to play like everyone else. From the local little league offering a baseball afternoon just as much as does the major league stadium and the multi-hundred dollar sports package on cable for the multi-thousand dollar home entertainment system to the better cup of coffee being half the price of Starbucks (with better espresso, more craftsmanship in the making), to the decent fruit at the little fruit stand on the corner or in the farmer’s market … find the quality, and support it.

This is not a society that will celebrate an ever growing GDP, an ever growing share price, an ever growing house price. No, instead, it’s one that supports your children being able to live in the neighbourhood they grew up in (not priced out of it), one where there is continuity, one where roots are laid down and nourished.

To my way of thinking it’s worth reaching out for.

All it requires is that you give up what we have, and change how you see the world.

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