(image by http://xray-delta.com/2012/01/31/working-for-a-small-vs-large-organization/)
OpEdNews' master of ceremonies, Rob Kall, delivered an intriguing, articulate and progressive vision in a recent interview by Burl Hall and Meryl Ann Butler (in her Envision This! programs). In-depth thinking, interviewing and reading invigorate this three-way chat, summarizing Rob's unabashed, activist thinking to save the world from its own worst habits.
Optimistic like Rob, I favor awakenings, empowerment, and experiments but along with defendable models with grounded, sustainable planning. No question that "advanced civilization" incurs high costs, certainly physical and emotional maladies rare in simpler cultures. And yet, the small-is-beautiful mantra raises big questions, not only about the permanence of decentralized non-systems, but the interface between the idealistic small vs. limitless systems averse to change (nationalism and arms, energy, resource, and electrical grids, the Internet, or the complexities of disease, health and safety, etc.). Reluctantly, I fear Rob's "bottom-up" future provides insufficient user protection or checks on corrupt corporatism. My aesthetic embraces Rob's models, but my analytic training identifies daunting problems, in the name of pragmatism and/or revolution.
Responses and opinions welcome. If nothing else, "bottom-up" provides ultimate grassroots democracy, everyone getting their five minutes with the megaphone.
1) Climate: What about planetary dilemmas that demand centralized, enforceable, unpopular rules certain to face high resistance? What if survival becomes a battle between the ransacking status quo vs. an international force tasked to cut carbon outputs "for the survival of the whole." What if Rob's decentralized solutions deliver at best partial fixes to greenhouse quandaries, as global sustainability clearly demands global solutions and power.
2) Lifespans Grow. What if topdown civilization, for all its new diseases, improves two problems for every one it brings? Modern medicine, plus superior sanitation and nutrition, have doubled the average earthling lifespan since 1900, from 30 years to over 64 today (and rising). Wealth, income, and medical expenses correlate big time with longer life. Can we truly decentralize high-tech research, regional/state water systems, or global advances to diet and living conditions? That life for billions is still brutal doesn't mean tragedies (like infant mortality) were not rampant 100 or 200 years ago. "Four generations ago, the average Swede had the same probability of dying as a hunter-gatherer, but [environmental] improvements in our living conditions through medicine, better sanitation and clean drinking water decreased mortality rates."
(image by http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/images2/Life_Expect_Long.gif)
3) Self-interest Rules. What if family/tribal "self-interest," even selfishness, dominates human nature more than heroic sacrifice (by one or many) for a higher good? What if the current, inequitable structure reflects a logical extension of heightened self-interest? What about massive over-population (with horrendous downsides) that also spawns thousands more solution-driven geniuses? Military prowess of the richest dozen countries can reinforce widespread, indeed imperial, control over suffering masses for decades to come. Revolution and insurgencies will strike lands with high suffering, but what affluent western nation nears revolution? The world is still fiercely nationalistic but, paradoxically, increasingly joined at so many, undeniable hips.
4) Surviving Apocalypse. What would become of independent, decentralized outposts, assuming good emergence from this status quo if major systems implode, per apocalyptic nightmares voiced by left and right alike? What sort of village life -- other than subsistence living -- would emerge were distant and specialized resources unavailable (like fuel or tools)? Would not isolation, reminiscent of medieval dreariness, prevail were transport and communication links broken?
5) The Price of Winning. Would truly independent outposts, as facts and as symbols, be tolerated by the itchy powers-that-be? Would not growing numbers, living off the grid, challenge the viability, if not profitability, of intact systems? Success could well incite new crusades against the "unwashed heretics," thus prosperity would carry jeopardy. Would tomorrow's power elite be more tolerant than today's, judging by one massive over-reaction alone called "anti-terrorism"?
Is Small Divisible from Large?
Overall, I find grand paradoxes in such progressive visions of systemic change. If you deliver successful, revolutionary, especially peaceful alternatives, all the more reason for billionaires and militarists to justify their existence with attack. And since violence (and arms) would not be part of decentralized, anti-war, anti-big growth mentalities, would the experiments not face destruction or isolation (as in "exile the lepers")?
On point, how many self-sacrificing volunteers would forego "civilization," not just the food, housing and travel, but all sorts of big-circus attractions (entertainment, live performances, gatherings and parties)? Would I trade off half my writing time to grow food or secure fuel? The critical information/education exchanges from global travel rely on corporate entities and international transport systems impossible to decentralize.
These observations extend beyond Rob's notions but to less well-defined projections that dream of displacing modern capitalism, alienation from work and nature, and lack of community. Returning power to the people, in the face of Walmart or BP or JP Morgan, will require not only a coherent plan but masterful execution. I remain suspicious of the nostalgic tone infusing utopian models right and left -- as if trying to retrieve, even improve, a lost golden age that wasn't so golden.
Technology, the Tie That Binds
Further, doesn't modern technology inescapably increase our personal linkage to large systems? Much utopian thinking stands in contradiction to what huge majorities consider "progress" (cell phones and transportable, wireless computers, breakthrough drugs and interventions, new fuel options). That problem is separate from imagining, let alone building, a public engine -- with mass leverage far in excess of Occupy -- that could clear the deck (and the monopoly control over resources) so that self-reliant outposts have a chance. I endorse community enterprise and organization, but change invites huge battles over core beliefs (like private property, how assets are divided, federalism and religion) if anything with revolution in the title appears.
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