Friday, August 28, 2009

Congruous & Modular

I've been asking myself the question: does it make any sense to have a local economy as a goal? Can local economies still work? Or is the whole "buy local" trend just a nostalgic or even irresponsible fantasy? Has our population even here in Ka'u over-grown to the point where we must have global economies of scale for all of us to survive?

In the big picture, there's no doubt that we need industrial agriculture, with its complex set of technologies and skills, to continue to make enough calories available to all or famine will happen. At the same time our global system of production and distribution has become rigid and therefore inefficient. It also supports and is supported by a certain world-view which is overly simplified and therefore, basically, stupid. A lot of people growl about corporations, but there's nothing wrong with corporations in and of themselves. Corporations, big and small, are just one way to organize people and materials. It is the world view - the culture - that undergirds global corporations (and hedge funds and credit-derivative swaps) that is so ridiculous. Ridiculous because blindered and short-sighted. Ridiculous because sterile, obsessive, neurotic. Does anyone like to live in a McDonalds, an office tower, or a strip-mall? The stripped down environments that this world view generates just plain suck. They really are like malignant tissue.

Bryan Fagan's book draws strong connections between rigid, top-heavy, and overly centralized civilization and the inability to adapt to the challenges which extreme weather such as El Nino inflicts. Our business culture certainly has become overly rigid (banks "too big to fail") and top-heavy (bonuses), and definitely over-centralized (just try to start a small business).

Here's the weird thing from a food producer's point of view: the more involved you become with our modern system of processing and distribution, the less -pound for pound - the stuff you produce is worth. Why? Because your carrots, corn, cucumbers, or in my case, beef have to carry the weight of the entire structure, the top-heavy and elaborate structure of distributors and government regulators, bankers and insurance salespeople, truckers, grocery-store clerks, food writers, chefs, graphic designers, window-washers, janitors, etc, etc, etc. To support all that there is a relentless pressure to drive down the costs of the actual stuff that the system exists to distribute. It's the opposite of adding value. The structure overwhelms the content. And so we have CAFOs and GMOs, giant slaughterhouses and illegal alien farm-workers. It's not somebody else's problem. We are all implicit and complicit. And it is all much more fragile than most people realize.

Which gets me back to the title of this piece: congruous & modular. Which is how I am breaking down that the all-too-ubiquitous concept of "sustainability" in my mind. I think we should aim to build systems that are congruous with the scale and character of communities and regions, that are congruous with local values, the local environment, and the particular carrying capacities of local natural resources. We also need to build flexibility into our systems by making them more modular (rather than centralized, consolidated, or global) in character. As well as being flexible, modular systems are also more human-scale, and therefore have the ability to tap into the creativity of individuals more completely, which really is a profoundly under-utilized natural resource at present. These are both time-tested grass-roots survival strategies, of course, nothing new. But I think congruous and modular - which local systems generally are- is the way to go.


Haole Wolf said...

A lot of wonderful things in this post to contemplate. The only piece of the term "sustainability" that might be missing from C & M is the notion of positive momentum into the future (though congruous has the strong implication of alignment with the past, present and therefore, future). The systems of the body work modularly (cells, centers of activity, scaling up) so this notion is supported by a billion years of organism/environment interactions. (By the way, this video is excellent on that topic:

The one aspect of incorporation that I still go back and forth on is the use (in the US) of the 14th Amendment to give Corporations the status of human. It energized American business, but a lot of the alienation we feel is because we have created a rich human with no feelings that can grow and grow for hundreds of years and only eats and spits money. (Here's a particularly perky article on that: d

Pajamahorse said...

The piece is very well written. Thank you for sharing it.

1st- there are people that like to live in glass, steel and concrete towers-so let them.

What we have now is a system that began as congruous and modular. As the population grew elements of it became inefficient, leading to centralization in many instances. What does congruous and modular look like? Does it resemble sprawl?

Sure, we could lament a political decision or 1,000 of them that were critical in the emergence of a particular condition that we now know doesn't work well. But these developments are more or less organic. After all, legislators are elected by people. The systems were designed by people with all of ther flaws, creating systems that are often imperfect. The common denominator is people, and more of them; and the struggle of society to continually meet the needs of its ever growing ranks.

The system(s) we have are imperfect, but they have been and continue to be developed over long periods of time, refined though countless cycles of trial and error and adjusted to meet changing conditions.

Our interventions and meddling in the law of natural selection have contributed to our current state, and we wonder why it's so difficult to achieve sustainability.

Unless we collapse, I don't think we are going to be able to rebuild major systems- not everyone will want to play along and there isn’t the fortitude and common goal to initiate a reboot. Of course, we could tweak them with support of legislation, but this, again, is precisely what has been happening historically- and here we are. Are we smarter as a people than we once were? Many think so, but I'm not so sure. In the end everything old is new again.