How to Not go Back to Normal
I have lots to share regarding the ways our current economic mindset and practices are failing us. However, instead of dragging you, dear reader, through several posts that build up to my proposal for a better world, I’ll cut the chase and jump right to it:
Let us, in our immediate community, without centralized authority interference, quantify our basic needs and meet them.
Now, this is no break-through idea. Many other thinkers and communities are already applying these concepts, particularly the adherents to the Transition Towns movement. Nevertheless, I believe it is necessary to polish these ideas and build concrete pathways to them if we are doing things differently after this reorganization opportunity.
For now, I am anticipating and answering a few initial questions below:
1/15. What are our basic needs?
They will vary from region to region, but some universal ones to get started with are food, shelter, and electricity.
2/15. Why would meeting these needs ourselves be so great? Didn’t we move on from agrarian times for a good reason?
At some point in our history (Industrial Revolution) we parted from an agriculture-based society to one of factory production where labor was divided into specialized jobs. Workers were then compensated in wages to meet their needs through other organizations or companies. We organized that way since, in this manner, we could produce the greatest number of goods with the least amount of individual worker training and in the shortest amount of time.
Now we see, however, how creating the greatest amount of goods in the shortest amount of time might not be a worthy goal considering how much material and energetic waste it generates.
Moreover, specializing labor has resulted in most workers spending their lives doing unfulfilling tasks that do not connect to their actual talents and desires, yet they are unable to stop for fear of going destitute. This phenomenon might be the main driver of stress and unhappiness in our society, even among workers with well-compensated jobs.
If we organize ourselves in a way that we can meet most of our basic dietary and shelter needs outside of the labor market, this number one stressor in our lives could be dissolved.
This is the goal Universal Basic Income (UBI) advocates call for through an unconditional, monthly sum of money distributed by a central government to every citizen regardless of income level. The present proposal would be a species of grassroots, resource-based UBI that is autonomous and independent from a central authority (for neighbors, by neighbors), protecting it from political and economic fluctuations.
In other words, if the market crashes, currencies devaluate, or governments decide to suspend the monthly checks, everyone’s basic survival is still unshakable and autonomous.
3/15. I don’t have the time for growing my own food or producing my own energy!
Those activities, individually, can be very time- and resource-consuming. Distributing them among a community, however, makes them not only manageable but perhaps even minimal. With our current technology, we can easily quantify our consumption and calculate how to distribute the labor fairly among the interested parties.
Moreover, since part of our sustenance would be directly compensated with food/housing/energy, wage-work hours could be cut back.
4/15. How would we go about meeting these needs?
Some ways would be by greatly expanding community gardening practices and renewable energy grids, as well as applying the technological innovations in affordable and sustainable housing. Splitting the labor among the participants is an option when it comes to simpler tasks, such as food production, while supporting the development of open-source automated technologies could be a great boost for decentralized, community-driven production.
For projects that require grander infrastructures or specialized labor, community members can organize in cooperatives to hire expert workers accountable to the community.
5/15.What is wrong with letting companies and governments meet basic common needs in exchange for fees/costs/taxes?
Production in a market system puts suppliers and consumers in opposite sides of the equation. The first seek to sell at the highest possible value, saving resources on materials, process, and labor, while externalizing social/environmental damage. The second seek the lowest price possible to assure their survival and afford a larger number of commodities. These dynamic creates a constant dance of tension to satisfy opposed interests, which often sacrifices long-term quality, material integrity, or the natural environment.
When producers and consumers, however, are the same people, the thug of war between those two parties dissolves. The focus in production shifts from ‘making ends meet’ to providing pragmatic solutions that consider quality, externalities, health, and resiliency.
The question is no longer ‘can we afford to meet this fundamental need?’ (and staying in lack if the solutions do not seem financially profitable), but ‘how do we best meet this need with the resources we have at hand?’
For instance, instead giving up when the local electric utility to determines it is not profitable to set up solar grids, groups of neighbors around the world have gathered their resources and set up their own grids:
Possibilities for creativity and resourcefulness open up and, what is more, the fulfillment of basic needs is no longer at the mercy of market fluctuations.
6/15.How would that infrastructure be developed, managed, and paid for?
Urban gardens are an amazing illustration of how much abundance can blossom from a community pooling their assets and feeding them through compost, seeds and time.
For larger projects such as solar panels or sustainable water treatment plants, communities can formalize their contributions by forming cooperatives and partnerships with a non-obtrusive and supportive local governments. They could also gain funding independently through foundations, credit unions, or crowdfunding.
Now, poor, marginalized communities might have a much harder time finding the time, resources, and space to gain this kind of independence. Those of us concerned about this problem can educate ourselves on how to provide support for those populations while respecting their sovereignty, listening to their needs, empowering their residents, and support generative solutions.
7/15. Wouldn’t providing basic goods and services for free to community members be socialism?
Not in the way many people think of socialism, as an all-powerful, omnipresent government that quantifies and rations goods at the cost of people’s wills.
This proposal is about community-wide, self-determination and distribution that is observed and executed by community members themselves. Participation is not mandatory or enforced by a higher authority, rather a cultural shift to adopt.
Many social revolutionaries believe that no movement will work unless we are ALL following the same mentality. I strongly disagree. In fact, I’d suggest that successful cooperation is impossible without absolute freedom and a genuine inner willingness to participate.
8/15. How are we ever going to organize without a central authority?
We are seeing the rise of various techniques and technologies for group coordination and effective cooperation. Practices such as Non-Violent Communication or various tools for group decision-making are becoming more widespread and the rise of cooperatives as large as Home Care Associates (2,000 members) or the millions of people coordinating online to create open source software show that this type of coordination is possible and effective.
Learning and applying group coordination is a matter of opening up to new ways of doing things and developing better technologies to help us make decisions together. For example, we can create apps that helps us set up schedules and hold each other accountable for the tasks we commit to in a shared project.
9/15. I hate people, team work is teeth-pulling. I’d rather pay someone to meet my needs and avoid the conflict.
Well, no judgment there. The first cooperative principle is Voluntary and Open membership, so you are free to reserve your right. However, I’d like to suggest that chronic hatred against our fellow humans might be the anchor that keeps us from reaching more effective, mature, and happy waters.
I encourage us to consider as well how a prime driver of our epic levels of unhappiness is isolation. As suggested by economist Bernard Lietaer in ‘The Future of Money,’ “anthropologists have found that community is based on reciprocity gift exchanges…As soon as non-reciprocal monetary exchanges begin to occur within these traditional societies, their communities start breaking down.”* Perhaps a great key to our well-being is shedding our limiting beliefs about each other and being willing to fulfill our needs in terms beyond monetary exchanges.
We can learn new ways to communicate, to understand, to master our egos and to open our hearts.This is no an easy path, but perhaps dealing with well-fed, securely housed, less stressed people might be much easier than dealing with the versions of ourselves who constantly live in survival-mode.
*Lietaer, Bernard, The Future of Money, Creating New Wealth, Work, and a Wiser World, London, Random House, 2001.
10/15. Wouldn’t this make the economy collapse? Would people lazy and passive?
My hope is that such a form of community-directed social security will free us to pursue our latent passions; that such freedom would create a colorful economy of excellency, with imaginative handcrafts, music, dishes, and inventions of solid durability and efficient use of materials. This in contrast to an economy incentivized to massively create soul-less products in the cheapest of fashions.
I find that the passivity and self-defeating lifestyle we indulge in during our free hours (e.g. TGIF! Have a drink, or four), is a product of jobs disconnected from the activities that truly fulfill us. Having the psychological security to try something new, and know that our failure won’t be punished with dire poverty, can open up possibilities and innovations beyond what we can imagine.
11/15. I don’t want to live in a tiny house and just eat vegetables!
The good news is you don’t have to, and, as mentioned above, since you are working a few hours in the garden, you can cut your hours at the office, and finally have more time to practice guitar, which you usually only do for an hour or so after work. You get really good at performing, charge a couple hundred dollars for tickets to your concerts, then spend them a trip to Brazil and that delicious cheese from that woman who always dreamed to be a culinary innovator.
[Insert your own adventure here]
12/15. What about freeloaders?
The idea is to have gardens or cooperatives where the benefits are distributed in the basis of contribution, so people get what they give. Moreover, software and/or community agreements can help monitor if people are fulfilling their responsibilities. Participants can then decide on ways to deal with individuals who do not abide by the rules. Are they kicked out of the group after three strikes? Are they given another chance to redeem themselves after a six-month suspension?
Through global networks, communities can share best practices and tools, innovating and adapting as they needed.
13/15. What about people who can’t contribute?
The groups can decide if they want to make donations to the elderly or adapt the work for members with disabilities.
14/15. I am already rich and doing awesome, what would I get from something like this?
Since participation is voluntary, you can rock on and enjoy your life. At the most basic level you would benefit from significantly less people asking you for money.
On the other hand, you could also build up your green thumb and gain access to some sweet harvest parties if you found a group to hang out with.
15/15. Is this even possible?
Assumptions and speculations about how people would behave given certain situations are cheap. Without some through trend analysis, I could just as easily claim that ‘if we were all free from economic responsibilities, we would kill each other,’ as I could assure that ‘if we were all free from economic responsibilities we would thrive and live in harmony.’ Then reality can sweep in and present behaviors no-one could have predicted: Who could have told that when a pandemic hits, people bend over backwards for toilet paper?
Nevertheless, community-led efforts are not mere claims, they are very much alive today and showing benefits, from the individual levels of happiness and connection, to the global ones of environmental sustainability.
The Transition Towns movement is probably the most aligned example of this, as well as hundreds of cooperative businesses around the world. For more information, I highly recommend looking at the Transition Network’s website and their documentary In Transition 2.0.
This piece is subtitled ‘A Solution…’ and not ‘The Solution…’ for a reason, since there might be many more.
‘…to Everything’ follows, because, in my eyes, it solves many modern problems of market shortcomings, food security, social inequality, disconnection and unhappiness. I recognize, however, how bold of a statement this is and that there might be many aspects I might not have considered.
Life will never be problem-free, and I don’t think it was ever meant to be so. What I hope for is that this way of meeting our needs creates “bigger, better, more interesting problems” because I don’t think I am the only one tired of wasting our precious lives chasing after money or dreading its loss.