From the outset, it may seem that Off Grid or Permaculture is a regressive ideology, seeking out the past rather than the future. In reality, history teaches us that the methodologies of the “homesteader” or the only way to ensure that technology persists and grows in to the future. Lets take a walk though the past and dream of an amazing “off grid” future.
Overcoming Fantasies of the Past
For at least the past few decades, he dominate conception of the future has been that of the hyper-technological utopia. The defining features of this vision are almost complete automation, seemingly infinite resources, and little or no conflict. Think “Star Trek” or “The Jetsons”.
The problem with this idea is that infinity does not practically exist. At one point the oceans were thought to be too vast to comprehend, but modern man has proven capable of mapping them, measurably polluting them, and fishing once vast fish populations to near extinction. Likewise, the ocean of oil that once existed beneath is showing signs going dry.
“Futurists” say that this limitation could be overcome by space exploration, or by harvesting solar energy. But that idea is seriously flawed. Even if the amount of resources or energy available within 1 year of space travel, say, were large compared to what we have access to now, the laws of exponential growth dictate that we will exhaust these vast riches shortly, if our recent past is any guide. Capitalist economies grow exponentially, with growth measured in percent.
Why exponential growth is a problem is easy to see in the story of the mathematician and the emperor. The story goes that the mathematician challenged a great emperor to fill his request — a chess board with one grain of rice on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, etc. “Easily,” the emperor replied and ordered his servants to makes it so. But, before long, with his entire countries supply of rice spent, he came to the stark realization that he could never full the board even half way.
If he had been able to continue, the final square would have taken about 589,687 million tons of rice to fill, the previous square half as much, and so on. Boundless exponential growth is not possible, and comes to a head relatively quickly.
Even if the resources of the universe are endless, the finite space in which we are bound by the physical realities of time and the speed of light bound our access to them. Inevitably, the outcome of our 100+ years of exponential economic growth, long by a human lifetime but short in the history of nations, is bound to hit a wall relatively shortly.
What Happens If We Stay the Course
If the hyper-technological vision of the future is really just a fantasy, what can we expect in the future? Well, that depends on the free-will decisions of humanity.
One option is that we do not significantly change course. We would continue with exponential growth until no longer tenable. The exact consequences of this outcome are not clear, because they depend on the exact boundary we hit first:
- A falling energy supply
- Scarcity of key resources (such as rare earth metals)
- Insufficient food production
- Partial or total environmental collapse
- Water shortage
- Global economic depression (ie systemic collapse)
No matter which ones do arise, however, all of these ill omens put extreme stress on social institutions and global power structures. Over stress can lead to global systemic collapse.
As discussed in my previous post, “Why You Need to Be Off Grid,” globalization inherent in our existing social systems inevitably leads to centralization and consolidation of production and power. This is not a new problem, and can be seen in the aftermath of the fall of civilizations like the Roman empire. When these keystones crumble, and Rome falls so to speak, the vacuum left leaves only a hard life for those who survive the turmoil. In the case of Rome, we called the period after the fall the Dark Ages for a reason.
A further problem, still, is technological dependence on far flung resources. If political systems collapse, then so does long distance trade. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed details the result of the loss of tin as a resource in the bronze age. The resulting loss of technology completely destroyed every great civilization of the time through starvation, social collapse, and warfare. From the height of Egyptian glory, a culture capable of building the temple great at Karnak and other wonders, the Nile delta full in to a backward, warring mess within the span of a generation.
Like our ancestors before us, our civilizations are almost inevitably doomed to suffer systemic collapse, unless we take responsibility for changing our future.
A Decentralized “Off Grid” Future
The second option is to develop a system that shirks exponential growth and is stable enough to survive any eventuality.
If anything good has come of specter of global nuclear war, is that some of the best minds on the planet have taken the time to develop precautions that must be taken in case of global catastrophe. Their conclusions are relatively straight foreword:
This is why the Cold War US government built nearly autonomous nuclear installations across rural America. With no external dependence and complete autonomy of action in case of nuclear war, no man or nation on the face of the Earth could prevent missile retaliation.
It is exactly this type of resiliency tat is need in our housing, food production, energy, and social systems. Like the tendrils of a fungus each cell of human existence needs to independently sufficiency, but capable of complex organization and mutual assistance on a larger scale.
Such a course inevitably restores the focus on local production, because 100s or 1000s of miles away can never truly be secure. And, likewise, local resources will be the forefront of economic importance. By bounding the sphere of human industrial creativity and innovation to what is immediately at hand, where resource limitations are obvious, we have the possibility of innovating our social, technological, and industrial systems to the point of perpetual sustainability, before we run out of chances.
Grass Roots Sustainability
It is my conviction that no government or existing institution is capable of instigating the changes necessary (more on this to come).
It was tinkerers and free thinkers like Newton, Edison, and the Wright brothers that laid the foundation for the modern world we live in. In the race for flight, two uneducated bicycle mechanics succeeded where government funded, highly educated competitors failed. And, that’s assuming such institutions recognize and are motivated to address these problems.
The logical place to start is with the most basic human needs: food, water, warmth, and shelter. The stage is ripe for new innovations in small scale food production, sustainable building, and homestead scale food storage. These are areas that have been neglected since the 50s, because large scale production was found to be more profitable in the short term.
And, luckily for us, with cheap computer technology, the internet, and inexpensive access to tools, what is possible an in a garage now would have been almost unimaginable 20 years ago.
Open Source Permaculture
However, we need not act entirely alone. There is a precedence, however, for spontaneously organizing collective action in the space of technology. And, that is Open Source software. Among the most spectacular of these successes is the Linux kernel, which began in a dorm room project, and now contains contributions from over 14,000 developers. There is no one company or group behind it. Yet, it trounces the likes of giant companies like Sun, IBM, and Microsoft — being used on 96.5% of the top million website, +92% of cloud services, and 498 of the top 500 most power super computers (source). Anyone is free to use it, look at how it works, and change it at no charge. And no one person controls it, except by group consensus.
The concepts employed by the Linux project, and many other software projects, need to be transplanted to core systems of survival. These concepts include:
- Total transparency
- Free (as in freedom)
- A collaborative organizational structure
Case Study: The Toaster
In his book The Toaster Project, Thomas Thwaites chronicles his journey to reproduce a low cost toaster, representative of the countless minor everyday object that fill our lives. Yet, this proved to be a challenge because the 400 parts that made up the toaster were made up of more than 100 different materials. The supply chains of these being so complex, that no one person understands how to make any one of them.
In the case of metal components, he was surprised to find that no one really understood how to go from rock ore to metal in a single step without the use of large scale industrial equipment. He resorted to historical texts to learn how to make iron, the base material of our civilization.
What his story reveals is that, there is a serious amount of work to enable smaller scale local production. We have lost some of the technology that we would rely on to keep our technology alive in the face of disaster.
Importantly, however, it shows just how trivial much of our necessities are. In reality a couple sticks and an open fire would have toasted the bread just fine. Albeit with a little skill on the part of the cook. In the search for sustainability and survivability, a little more simplicity will go a long way.
Case Study: Combines and Tractors
On the more essential side of technology are farm’s tractors. These pieces of machinery feed the planet. And, even in a post-industrial future based on local production, there is a place for machines to augment human labor.
At one time, tractors were reliable and simple to fix. The image of a farmer tinkering with his engine in the old barn is practically synonymous with the ideal of small farming now relegated to the past.
In modern America, and other western countries, farmers are fighting for the right to fix their own tractors. Multinational corporations, in an attempt to solidify their dominance, have leveraged intellectual property laws, computerization, and restrictive trade practices to lock farmers out of their own machines. Increasingly they are required to visit “authorized dealers” for maintenance and parts, rather than fixing the machines themselves in their own fields with commonly available parts.
Besides being unfair, the real danger of this practice is the possibility of the failure of such corporate organizations. In a potential future where resources are scarce, food is dear, and society is fractured, can we afford to let whole fleets of tractors become unfixable should John Deere or some other mega-corporation cease to function?
Case Study: Skype
Besides the need for the ability to understand and repair our own machines, there is a need for openness in technology to prevent excessive concentration of power. Large centralized power structures do not bode well for the fate of humanity. Yet, there is an incessant draw for humans to create them.
On such block is the Chinese government, which seeks to control the hearts and minds of its population through any means possible including the largest information control system on the planet. And when that fails, they are well know to take draconian measures against their citizens, such as involuntarily harvesting their organs.
So, it might surprise you to find out that Microsoft, owner of the popular free video, voice, and text messaging service Skype, voluntarily sends data on private conversations to the Chinese government. This includes not only Chinese citizens in China, but also conversations between non-Chinese citizens in countries all over the world including the United States and Europe.
Emerging Technologies for Local Production
It may be true that not all of us would be capable or have the time understand every piece of technology that we interact with on a daily basis, it is extremely important that we take steps to make sure that someone can. Having the option gives more opportunity for interested people to make a living for themselves in their local community.
Further, open designs mean that we have the possibility to incrementally improve designs, fix our technology with minimal cost, and inspect how our technology works so we know it is working for, and not against, us.
One great example of this in action is the EOMA68 computer project. This initiative aims to offer both open designs and hardware for sale that is entirely free (as in freedom), transparent, and modular.
Where now, when it comes time to upgrade your laptop, you would generally throw away the whole thing and buy a new one, the EOMA68 computers can be upgraded in pieces. Need a faster processor? Just switch out the card. Ready for a new screen? No problem. Case broken? You can 3d print your own replacement pieces with their free design.
This open design methodology allows even more innovation. With the ground work in place for interoperability, any number of small business would be capable of producing new and improved versions of any part on the computer. And, even if the founding company doesn’t survive the ecosystem they started will.
With technologies like 3d printing and CAD software becoming accessible to almost anyone, there is no reason why this concept can’t be applied to many other areas. Need a lamp? Print your own, or have the local printer do it for you? How about a piece for your car or tractor?
A complexly free (as in freedom) design for tractors and other essential technology could mean that in the next 20 years people are routinely printing replacement parts in their own homes or communities. Industry is already using metal printing machines for rapid prototyping processes. There is no reason why this or similar technologies shouldn’t find their way in to self-sufficient communities.
Open source technology reduces the market incentives to constantly push new products on people to make a sale. We have the technology to make semi trucks that run for 500,000 miles, yet the average consumer car is lucky to get 200,000. If we play our cards right, we will live in a world where, cars, refrigerators, tractors, motors, and all forms a machinery are built to last 50 years, can be fixed all with locally produced parts, and allow for incremental improvements over time.
Let’s free our selves from over-consumption, spend our time, money, and resources on living a deeply fulfilling life.
Make Technology Work for Us
It perplexes every time a hear someone lament a job lost because of technology. That is the point of technology, to work for us so that we can spend time creating, crafting, laughing, and loving. The real lament is that this technology is used to make widgets far away to be sold us.
No one needs a job.
What they need is food, water, clothing, housing, safety, family, and purpose. Here at Off Grid Permaculture, our aspiration is to teach you the skills and pass on the knowledge necessary to survive and thrive without external inputs. That means, you don’t have to have a “job” unless you want one.
By changing our thinking, we can amass true wealth, which isn’t money or gold. It is a set of tools and skills that allow you to keep you and your family no matter what happens.
Join the Off Grid community to make a sustainable future possible.