I recall seeing a British television programme in the late 1980s entitled “Ever Decreasing Circles”, but today’s piece isn’t about it: it’s just been a title that comes with imagery.
What we’re going through at the moment is that phenomenon, of circles closing in. See it at a drain near you: watch the water circle, then fall in, and as the basin empties, how the circles shrink.
The future isn’t black — far from it — unless you define the future as having to be “like the past, but more so”. (In that event, it’s dark as pitch ahead.)
Look, how we got here isn’t how we’re going to get out of today.
In fact, it can’t be.
We started to hit the limits of our old way of doing things a good forty years ago. If we’d started saying “the future can’t be like the past, so let’s leap into the future” then, it would have been essentially painless.
Instead, we went on an orgy of “la la la la, I can’t hear you”, spent ourselves silly pulling as much demand forward as we could, and pretended like nothing needed to change. Ever.
The future, we asserted, was going to be exactly like the past, but more so. Millionaires would become billionaires, but otherwise everything would be the same.
Well, we consumed the last of just about every cheap resource there is on the planet doing that. We piled up debts to the stratosphere in the process.
Those two things have killed the engine of “growth”, alongside the consolidation effects of a society that was milking its past capital for all these years. We call it vulture capitalism, or financialization.
How many names from your childhood are still on the streets of your town or city? How many have been replaces by names “from away”? How much of your spending at what’s left leaves for parts unknown, profits repatriated from your community to line pockets elsewhere?
That’s what milking looks like — and look around you, the desiccated landscape is what you see when the last of the milk has flowed out.
So what does this bright future look like, then?
It looks relentlessly local. The more local, the better. Let a thousand flowers bloom, each doing things just a little bit differently from others, working to be better, not bigger.
It is built on sustainable practices, so that it’s not dependent on stuff from elsewhere — energies, resources, trade goods, you name it — to the furthest extent possible. Jane Jacobs talked, in The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, about “import substitution”. This is import substitution with a vengenance.
“No, I don’t care that you can make the widget cheaper. I want to buy it from Bill over here, who makes precisely what I want. Besides, Bill’s my neighbour, and you’re not.”
Work for everyone in that model, as opposed to hoping this isn’t the year the factory closes, the chain decides your outlet isn’t needed, or “let’s downsize again” comes through the place.
Yes, the circles of life are smaller — but they’re remarkably more stable. Being the global giant, the “name brand”, isn’t everything.
Learning how to live is.