Last Exit to the Road Less Traveled

Lambert here: An attractive proposal in many ways, but I’m not sure how you square artisanship based on local resources with, say, society-wide public health measures like potable water. Or pharmaceuticals. Or the Internet, for that matter, which I imagine we would all like to preserve, if we can get a handle on the dopamine loop problem. Maybe you don’t; maybe the Jackpot won’t allow us to retain such luxuries.

By J. D. Alt, author of The Architect Who Couldn’t Sing, available at Amazon.com or iBooks. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives

We now stand where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one less traveled by—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.

–Rachael Carson, Silent Spring

What’s important to keep in mind in this quote from Rachael Carson’s 56-year-old warning shot over the bow of corporate civilization is that there are two roads being traveled now. We are no longer at a fork. The fork is half-a-century behind us. The goal is not to get the superhighway to somehow re-route itself and follow the path less traveled. It can’t. The superhighway will, and must, continue accelerating in its inevitable direction, simply because the greed and power of the people driving that highway will not allow them to alter course. But if there is any truth to Rachael Carson’s warning (and there seems to be growing evidence of it) the other path—the Road Less Traveled—will become the surviving branch of our evolutionary diagram. The present goal, therefore, should be to create as many exits from the superhighway as possible—and to encourage and enable as many people as possible to take those exits to explore and follow the other path.

Visualizing how we all got on this superhighway in the first place will be helpful to seeing the exit ramps. To make this visualization, it isn’t necessary to speculate about an ancient, human pre-history. The process can be clearly seen and understood in a modern anecdote describing how one particular community of people joined the highway.

I quote now from the book Fishing Lessons by Kevin M. Bailey*, where he retells author Robert Johannes’ story of fishermen in Palau, an island country in Micronesia. “Seafood was once abundant there. The Palauan fisherman never had trouble finding enough fish to satisfy their own and their village’s needs. The fisherman gave away the fish they didn’t eat to other villagers…. They lived in a state of ‘subsistence affluence.’

“…. After Japan colonized Palau in the 1920s the fishermen began to sell their fish to obtain attractive and exotic goods offered by the Japanese. The fishermen bought nets and motorized boats with the money, allowing them to catch more fish to sell in order to obtain more goods. They fished harder to harvest more fish and visited more distant areas of the reef to find them. Over the years, the fish abundance dropped.

“The fishermen bought even bigger boats to catch the vanishing fish, but to do that they had to borrow money. They had to sell all their fish to pay off their loans. They stopped giving them away in the villages; instead they sold them to the outsiders and to other villagers. Now the people in the village had to work for the money to buy their food….

“Pretty soon, there were not enough fish over the reefs for the fishermen to make payments on their loans, so the village sold their customary access rights to the fishing grounds. The people in the village began to eat imported fish in cans.”

In a nutshell, that is the superhighway. Here are a few simple observations:

  1. The superhighway is driven by trade.
  2. Trade seduces local people to transform a local resource into a commodity which they exchange for commodities from other localities.
  3. Transforming local resources into commodities—which can be sold to much larger communities (i.e. markets)—seduces the local people into over-harvesting or over-utilizing the local natural resource.
  4. As the local resource-commodity becomes more difficult to obtain, local people are further seduced into adopting new and more aggressive technologies to harvest it—resulting in a further over-harvesting or over-utilization of the resource.
  5. As the technologies required to harvest the local resource-commodity become more complex and expensive, the local people are forced to go into debt to acquire and operate those technologies.
  6. To service their debt, the local people eventually are forced to consign to their creditors their natural ownership of the local resource itself. The local people are now the tenants and employees of the new owner—which, in one personification or another, is the “superhighway.”
  7. The new tenants and employees now work for wages—which are set by the superhighway—and must use their wages to buy their subsistence in the form of commodities produced by the superhighway from the global network of local resources it now owns and controls.
  8. In the end:
    1. The superhighway literally owns the earth’s resources.
    2. Everyone in the world is a working tenant and employee, (except for the 1% of the people in the world who are the creditors who own the superhighway itself.)
    3. Every local resource has been over-harvested or spoiled to the point of collapse or depletion.

It is this last point, of course, which is ultimately Rachael Carson’s warning: Whether you’re a creditor or debtor, an owner or employee, a landlord or tenant, when the local resources (and all resources are “local”) are spoiled, depleted, and cannot be restored or renewed, the pavement of the superhighway comes to an end. There is nothing left to exploit, nothing left to trade. Long before that point is reached, however, life stops being fun—first for the 99%, then, finally, for the 1%, which is basically everybody still traveling the superhighway.

The Artisan Path

Meanwhile there is the Road Less Traveled. People who took that fork some time back are doing things differently. The chief differences are two: First, they are using local resources to create goods and services for local communities rather than mass-markets. Second, they are refusing to harvest or utilize their local resource beyond what it can sustainably provide. In fact, people on this path spend time and effort to nurture their resource with great care. (If they are fishermen, for example, they research the habitat needs of the fish they catch, and they plant the plants and clean the waterways that feed the habitat.)

Because of this fundamental approach to life and business, instead of adopting ever-bigger and more expensive technologies to increase yields and profits, these people derive genuine pleasure from exploring and perfecting the “art” of producing their product or service while preserving and enhancing the sustainability of their resources. They are what we call “artisans.”

Just so there is no confusion on this point, don’t imagine that the term “artisan” refers to special talents in making something artistically attractive. If you’re a hard-nosed, practical-minded engineer, don’t imagine you can’t be an artisan. In fact, you could be one of the greatest artisans who ever lived. All that’s necessary is that you apply your hard-nosed practicality to the “art” of utilizing resources sustainably to create something of utility. That is the art that economist E.F. Schumacher called “beautiful.” That is what artisans do. And that is what gives them fun, challenge and pleasure in their everyday lives.

The last exit to the Road Less Travelled, then, is the path of “artisanship.” And the essence of artisanship is the pleasure derived from addressing the challenge of how to be healthy and comfortable on the earth without over-harvesting or spoiling local resources.

This all sounds naively utopian for the simple reason that everyone knows the artisan life is not a high-paying job. In fact, it might not “pay” anything at all! This is a fundamental problem with the Road Less Travelled—and a big obstacle to the goal of attracting more and more travelers to its path (so it is an operating, viable roadway when the superhighway begins to falter).

Take the example of the artisan fishermen again: They are going to plant plants and clean waterways that improve the habitat for fish, right? Who is going to pay them to do that work? When they subsequently catch a fish and sell it in their local market, they will earn some dollars—but to earn enough dollars to also pay for improving the habitat that nurtured that fish, they must sell the fish for two or three times what a fish sells for on the superhighway. This is what is known, conventionally, as “economics.” The superhighway fisherman not only doesn’t spend time or effort nurturing fish habitat, he operates a giant floating machine that actually destroys the habitat while efficiently sucking and scraping the water for whatever happens to be living in it. The machine is expensive, yes, but the cost per fish scraped out is—at least until fish population collapses— “profitably” low. This translates to the superhighway market next door to the artisanal market: flounder at $5/pound, versus flounder at $15/pound. Where are you going to shop?

There are two answers to this question. First, if you have a decent-paying job on the superhighway, you can “participatorily” exit to the Road Less Travelled by skipping the supermarket and purchasing the more expensive artisanal flounder. The value and importance of this kind of participatory exit cannot be over-stated. There are emerging artisanal businesses all over the country, and they should be smothered with love, affection, and consumer dollars.

The second answer is that we need to demand that “conventional” economics be seriously reconsidered in our highest political offices and debates. What good is a conventional economics that tells us we can only create jobs and “profit” by literally destroying and despoiling the resources we depend on? That sounds un-economic to me—but it is literally the generic business model of the superhighway. What good is a conventional economics that hammers us with the logic that our monetary system can freely create money to dig out and grind up resources (because doing so generates a “profit”)—but we cannot create money to restore those diggings to their natural, productive state (because who would earn a “profit” by doing so)?

The last exit to the Road-Less-Travelled, then, ultimately depends on establishing a new understanding of the modern fiat-money we use today—an understanding that will enable us to see a remarkable new reality: the “costs” of resource protection and restoration are the income of artisanship.

*I am grateful to Kevin M. Bailey for introducing me to the general theme of this essay—as well as the quotation from Rachael Carson.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

47 comments

  1. Anti-Schmoo

    The Artisan Path; wonderful phrase.
    It’s going to take a massive re-education; which will include a radical change in our way of thinking about how we see the world. Especially our own local environmens.
    Mindful living…

    Reply
    1. Anti-Schmoo

      I would add; capitalism cannot be a part of artisan living. At least, not capitalism as now practicised.

      Reply
    2. Juneau

      It is a wonderful phrase. And, since artisanal businesses are such small companies it doesn’t take nearly as much to keep them afloat (number of widgets/services they need to sell to maintain their business etc…)
      The organic food people made it happen. I remember in the 70’s what the word “organic” implied then versus now. Granted WF monopolized on it but my local CSA is well worth the money instead.
      Nice actionable suggestion.

      Reply
      1. Fiery Hunt

        We “artisanals” (hate that word!) still have to live in the rent-extracting world. I’m a one-man shop (I restore stained glass panels) and live in the SF Bay Area…the amount of “widgets” I have to build is dependent on my rent!

        Reply
        1. Anarcissie

          This is a crucial point often omitted in discussions such as that above. Rent extraction greatly reduces the choices available to producers of anything.

          Reply
          1. Carey

            …which is just the way the rentiers want it, I’d say. Nonetheless, becoming good at something sustainable and important to existence (cultural or bare existence) is the way to go, I think, and I’m working on it, too. Sharpening hand tools is my thing, for
            example.

            Reply
        2. ambrit

          My Dad once got into an extended argument in the letters section of the local newspaper over whether or not glass acts like a liquid over time.
          I believe that the consensus was that, yes, glass is a liquid.
          Good for you if you can pick and choose your commissions.
          If I had the money, I’d commission you to do a window showing “R’lyeh rising.”

          Reply
  2. Samuel Conner

    Me thinks that inexpensive sustainable distributed energy production will make many things possible that currently appear to be dependent on the current and unsustainable large-scale centralized corporate economy. Maybe scale will be needed for sustainable production of the gear required for inexpensive distributed energy production, but after that, much more may be possible.

    Reply
    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      This month’s issue of Mother Earth News has a pretty good spread on small energy production, including a bunch of links.
      That’s the one independence(asides from property taxes) that I haven’t been able to even see a path to…capital outlays are just too great.
      We’re too poor, and such things can’t be found in the metal pile at the dump.
      as near as I can tell, this might be changing.(one of my peeves is the habit of not posting prices on stuff like this. it smells bad, for one)
      I’ve got triple redundancy with water, and am getting the biome set up as best I can(damned grasshoppers, again this year) in order to have the real possibility of feeding ourselves, but it would be way cool to be able to have a little bit of independent power around.
      One less bill to pay= money that can go to fruit trees and a second chicken house.(i’ll be firing the propane man next year, once the solar water(yay, dump!) heater is installed).
      Autarky is hard in this economic environment; from barriers to entry to unavoidable costs imposed, every little bit saved counts.

      Reply
  3. jefemt

    Not sure how this rolls out to all 7 billion of us- it sure seems like it could, but Oh My!

    The implied changes, the vested interests, the stranded capital— there will be some very serious resistance to such a plausible paradigm shift.

    Reply
  4. PlutoniumKun

    A factor not taken sufficient account here I think is infrastructure investment. Much infrastructure is very much a public good, but economic geographers have long noted how many types of infrastructure can act to undermine local businesses. Its often been speculated that one reason Argentina and Brazil failed to develop ‘deep’ economies is that early investment in railways designed to extract resources also lead to early penetration of traded goods which prevented local manufacturing and service businesses to mature. A lot of this comes down to who makes the investment decisions of course – national governments favour schemes linking the country to the capital or major ports, regional and local governments generally favour strengthening local networks (but they also tend to love big airports too).

    This is all linked of course to the impact of hidden subsidies, whether of infrastructure (highway networks benefiting larger supply chains), or through the tax system. There are many cases where even quite minor changes in tax rules can have a big impact – the best example being I think the explosion of local (craft) beers at the expense of the big brewers. I don’t believe that there are inexorable laws leading to centralisation and gigantification, this usually arises directly from policy and investment.

    Reply
    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      in recent years(like, the last 10 or so), Texas has deregulated a few cottage industries(not nearly enough, but still)
      you no longer need a second kitchen to make…say…tamales.
      it’s moderately easier(as in not an actual crime any more,lol) to sell raw milk and/or local milk.
      These and other, similar, changes have happened as a direct result of people getting together and bothering the creatures in Austin.
      That’s how the wine industry out here happened.
      so it’s possible, even in Texas(!), to encourage change.
      Of course, there are many other barriers to entry littered about the land, so there’s still a ways to go, and much resistance from the same folks who holler loudest about competition being good for the soul.
      “eternal vigilance” and all…

      Reply
  5. The Rev Kev

    I find it charming that the artisanal path is being presented as a choice here. I would say that within a century that this will simply be the way that things are done. There will be no other choice but there will be a much smaller population so it should work out easier. Whether we like it or not, most of our great grandchildren will be farmers and the like.
    Maybe by then we will have worked out a more pragmatic theory of economics that captures ALL costs. Want an example? Cigarettes. Modern economists only go by industry financial statements and that is all. It was only when the full costs were captured, as in all the medical treatment paid by the State to treat people with smoking-related diseases, that the true cost of cigarettes began to be realized. Imagine if this true, full-capture system of economics was applied right across the board.

    Reply
    1. blennylips

      From the “Socialist Standard” No. 765 May 1968 (cover):

      Something to Think About

      But all these plans have been tried many times, and have always failed. They will never work. For instance, in Britain now about 10 per cent of the people own 90 per cent of all wealth. This means that there are two classes—those who live off profits, and those who have to work for wages. Big money, when it is invested, grows so fast that taxation doesn’t stop it growing. If taxes were raised so high that they did do this, the result would just be utter chaos, because nothing would be profitable any more.

      plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

      oops! adding the link:
      https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/1960s/1968/no-765-may-1968/something-think-about

      Reply
  6. Dave

    Key: Trading for trinkets led to the problem. This is also the weakness of the superhighway. Such trade can also be seen as waste. Consider the original gifting society. Even today such gifting is not taxable income. A glaring weakness.

    Major problem: The trinkets and treats are so delicious.

    We need adults in the world right now to restore some sanity and balance.

    Another major problem: When everything is failing, non-failing resources will be taken however necessary. This is why native people are destroyed. The profit machine hunts resources wherever they exist in the world.

    Altogether, a VERY difficult problem.

    Reply
  7. Darthbobber

    Quick take. This does not seem to speak directly of power, which seems indispensable to the question of getting from one state of affairs to another.

    Of the “two paths” to this, the first, the participatory exit, has been the go-to at least since “be the change you want to see” became a glib slogan to replace mass ppolitics, and to some extent since well-heeled aesthetes bought from William Morris instead of the mass producers. (Saw a meme once of Marx saying “Sure. I’ll just BE ‘the forcible overthrow of all existing economic and social relationships.”

    The second is a rather nebulous discussion of the need to replace one variant of economics with another, without being real specific about anything but the need to enforce internalization of costs (a theme key to Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” output which I read in the fairly early 70s when little more than a child). But this is an area where an “economics” of any kind means nothing without a politics, because this falls into the kind of economics that has no liberal utopian self-enforcement mechanism, and must therefore be imposed by an extra-economic power. ie, a state, a suprastate mechanism, or some as yet to be created mechanism which is neither of those but nonetheless has the requisite power.

    This is the point where one comes face to face with some concept of social planning of production, and distribution, a discussion which has generally atrophied rather than advanced since the 1950s at the latest.

    Not sure how the author proposes to deal with the fact that there no longer exist the huge proportion of people and cultures not yet tied to the”superhighway”, (and much of the brief schematic there seems really more about the original mechanism of a non-capitalist culture being integrated into capitalism, rather than a semi mythical artisanal capitalism being seduced into mass production.

    For more developed variants of what SEEMS to be the author’s main line of thought, I think Ivan Illich’s “tools for conviviality” remains unsurpassed, also some of Hardin, and a little-read Quaker economist name of Kenneth Boulding.

    More could obviously be said.

    Reply
  8. Carolinian

    This has a deja vu quality for those of us around long enough to remember the hippie era, Whole Earth Catalog, geodesic domes etc. Those young people were directly influenced by Rachel Carson and the failure of mainstream society as represented by Vietnam. And in many ways it was a beautiful thing. Materialism is the American disease–now spread across the world.

    And yet it didn’t last. Turns out being an artisan can be hard work. Just as your family dog is perfectly content to eat dog food made in a dog food factory rather than going out and chasing rabbits, humans are prone to take the path of least resistance–not to mention produce expensive offspring–and so the yuppification of the hippies can’t all be blamed on a capitalist conspiracy. Undoubtedly a desire for the conveniences of modern civilization is part of our nature and therefore also “natural.”

    Transitioning to a new era may involve a lot more than just “establishing a new understanding of the modern fiat-money” or purchasing artisinal goods. While this is undoubtedly worthwhile it is perhaps dubious that it will scale on a planet of 7 billion plus. At this point keeping the planet alive may require some heavy duty applied science.

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I find this post extremely disturbing. This sort of fuzzy thinking is part of how we ended up on the current path. Begin with the idea that Rachael Carson’s book marked the branch in the road. Although there was trade in the so-called Dark and Middle-Ages I think the available means of travel along with other impediments sufficed to create the longed for artisanal age. Does anyone long for those good-old days?

      The fish story concentrates on the problems of resource depletion. That is indeed a problem but a problem driven along many resources and depleted through many factors beyond machines and trade. As portrayed, the fish story nicely ties in capitalism and its transitions to unhappy endings but fails to mention other little issues like exponential population growth which really took off in the last Century and the likelihood that the happy go-lucky islanders of Palau were colonized. I don’t know and don’t particularly care about the features of Japanese colonization there but unless they behaved very differently than other colonists I doubt the resource depletion would have depended on the seduction of the islanders to the pathways of the superhighway. Colonists and capitalists have little reservation about taking what they want through various means. I suppose this post can twist words as it pleases but how and why associate artisan and its marketing label “artisanal” — like “artisanal bread” — to the very ancient arts of caring for and maintaining a relationship with nature and local resources like the forest projects described in 1491 or the Eurasian practices of maintaining and sharing commons?

      This word play drags in the issues of workmanship and its relations to the machine and mass production. The destruction of commons and the destruction of workmanship deserve their own separate analysis and neither benefits from the a willy-nilly blending of issues and arguments. The superhighway we are on, its all-too-soon bitter end, and what to do about it deserve a lot more thought than appealing to nostalgia for an idyllic past that never existed.

      The superhighway we are on runs on fossil fuels and they are a critical resource which will greatly limit trade and compel arisanal craftsmanship. Our food supplies and their distribution depend on fossil fuels as the conveniences we enjoy in our homes and lives. Many of the materials we take for granted — steel, glass, ceramics, concrete — require large amounts of energy for their manufacture. Fishing from a dugout canoe instead of a giant commercial trawler and paying 3x times the price for fish seems a poor answer as an exit from the superhighway. I didn’t notice much impact from paying more to buy-American other than a thinner wallet and feeling like a fool when I found out how made-in-USA was defined.

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Grimm

        The store of fossil fuels we are depleting and wasting as-fast-as-we-can as we speed and accelerate along the ‘superhighway’ of this post is a one-time one-shot deal. We need to preserve the knowledge made possible by the brain power available from our large populations and by the capabilities for building this knowledge base. And we must hope enough was discovered and can be preserved to our future. We must hope we learned enough to adapt to the changing climate and the uncertain ways it will impact our ability to raise foods through agriculture. Rapid climate change with violent weather changes could and I fear will cause widespread death of the plant and animal life like the Gray Forests of the Sierras. After the lessons of prehistoric Australia and the impacts of humankind on the animal life we hunted there does anyone seriously believe we could return to the ways of hunter gathers for long — which leaves some form of agriculture and limited animal husbandry as our only options. I believe there will be new life and some old life will survive the bottleneck of the ongoing 6th Extinction and I expect humankind to be among the survivors. I hope we have learned enough and can preserve enough and later extend enough of our knowledge to avoid future generations forever looking back to today’s dystopia as the Great Age of Humankind. That would be a most bitter irony.

        Reply
        1. Newton Finn

          Having discovered him only recently, I’ve been immersing myself in the work of Edward Bellamy; specifically, “Looking Backward” and the sequel, “Equality.” For those like me who had not been exposed to this prescient thinker, he’s the American writer who, in the late 19th Century, anticipated radio, television, airplanes, electric cars, calculators, air conditioning, credit cards, supply chains, women’s liberation, environmental restoration, geothermal energy, and many other aspects of contemporary life. But even more stunningly, he predicted the inevitable strangulation of humanity by global plutocracy, if his Great Revolution against the immemorial “rule of the rich” (in its final capitalist form) failed to occur in the 20th Century. While Bellamy’s late 19th Century work is obviously in need of 21st Century revision, he may be the only utopian thinker who created a vividly detailed and potentially viable large-scale alternative to the “superhighway” taking us rapidly over the cliff. Bellamy deserves much more serious attention, if only in light of the fact that so much of what he saw coming has actually come.

          Reply
  9. GlassHammer

    “The superhighway is driven by trade.”

    I think its driven by something far more basic like the drive to grow and develop your community through time. Underneath that is something like the desire to improve your situation beyond the circumstances that nature dictated. The next layer down is something like the will to survive/thrive. The layer after that would be sheer will and I can’t say what sits below that, consciousness perhaps.

    I don’t think a viable solution can be determined if we don’t drill way down into the human condition which is why I have serious doubts about the path proposed in the article.

    Reply
    1. JEHR

      It’s not drilling down that is required; it is “drilling up,” that is, making sure that none of the wealthy hoard their wealth or increase their wealth beyond all reason. We do not need billionaires who decrease resources quickly, impoverish others indiscriminately and privatize the commons that support and sustain the public. Maybe we will have to go through great travails where Everyone becomes impoverished before any effort is made to take good care of the earth and all its resources and each other.

      Reply
      1. GlassHammer

        “That is, making sure that none of the wealthy hoard their wealth or increase their wealth beyond all reason.”

        Hoard isn’t a very accurate way of describing what the wealthy do with their money. (They need money to grow from money so they never just let their money sit. Their money circulates.)

        Also, income/rewards are the product of the hierarchies built into our society and those hierarchies are representations of a set of goals/values. This means the accumulation of wealth (even if you think it has reached an absurd level) is actually driven by a large set of existing reasons.

        “Maybe we will have to go through great travails where Everyone becomes impoverished before any effort is made to take good care of the earth and all its resources and each other.”

        There is no “maybe we will have to go through great travails”, you would “absolutely have to go through great travails” if you want to level distribution across the board. I highly recommend “The great leveler” by Walter Scheidel for an in-depth look at the history of inequality.

        Reply
      2. Amfortas the Hippie

        taxes don’t seem to work for long, but maybe there are other prophylactics that can be applied.
        Aside from somehow getting people to consider the Rich a delicacy, I think Shunning and Shaming and Exile would prolly be pretty effective, if applied very, very widely.
        I had thought that the last round of shenanigans and their lack of consequences would have angered us more, and for longer.
        Since it didn’t, I have no idea what it would take to make being billionaire-rich a deleterious condition , unloved and hated.

        Reply
  10. Wukchumni

    I’ve greatly simplified my life taking the road less traveled, far away from big cities, surrounded by nature. There’s no money in it, which is why there’s so few of us, relatively speaking.

    Reply
      1. juliania

        Actually, ambrit, some of us didn’t. Need money, I mean. Some of us were shunted onto lands that were not of our choosing, and so we made the best of it. Some of us, or our ancestors did, came to the land when it was empty of all but the animals and vegetation, put down roots and quietly made the best of it. And we are still on that land, loving and caring for it. And some of us, perhaps not many on this blog, but some, struck out for unpromising parts of the country far from our workplaces so we had difficult and long ways of getting to where a wee bit of money could be made, just enough to pay for a leaky roof over our heads but we did it and we loved it and we are still there. Land values may have changed since the wealthy started seeking out ‘country places’ but that is a relatively new phenomenon. ( I guess they did feel a little exposed to that ‘shame and shun’ thing when they lived in more public places.)

        Some of us have always been inner artisans. Some of us have always loved this planet more than this country, which is only a segment of a greater whole. There’s nothing global about that; it’s all about the earth. I enjoy the term ‘artisan’ because I have a very small plot of land in my keeping; it’s not even mine to own, but I love it. And it is an infinitesmal part of the planet. On it I planted trees, as many as would fit. I was an artisan, even before I really knew how much the planet needed me to be!

        There is an island over in the Greek islands called Patmos. The last abbot at the monastery there said to his flock, “Love trees.” And as reported by a visitor, that once barren island now is covered with trees. That’s artisanship on a very small scale, a personal scale. We could all do that with really only a little help from a sympathetic government. What did Roosevelt offer? – a shovel and a tent and minimum wage. Look what they accomplished, before it disappears in a forest fire. And then after that fire, get that tent and that shovel!

        I was never a hippie. But I did what they did, and I always loved trees. Most poor people do. What do you suppose a poor person would do that is homeless if he or she were offered a shovel and a tent and a piece of land to regenerate and grow things on? The chance to be an artisan instead of a ward of the state – who would not jump at that chance?

        Reply
    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      The GDP* will be lower.

      And that’s a good thing, when we are constantly being brainwashed to pray for more GDP growth.

      *As it is calculated today. Of course, if you include housework in your GDP calculation, that new GDP may not fall too much or may in fact increase, if zazen or nature hikes are also included.

      Reply
  11. 3.14e-9

    That J.D. Alt is quoting Rachel Carson doesn’t excuse his misuse of Robert Frost’s widely misunderstood poem.

    The title of the poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is the first clue that it doesn’t mean what most people think it does. In the last stanza, the poet retells the story ages later, and with a sigh, says his choice of the road less traveled “has made all the difference.” “Ages and ages” later, what difference did it make that he took a different path through the woods? More to the point, how could he possibly know what would have happened had he taken the other road? Or that the other road was even more heavily traveled past the undergrowth? (My $.02: Maybe the heavily traveled path into the undergrowth was from travelers ducking in for a potty break.)

    Finding an exit from a road not taken could be somewhat problematic.

    We can only imagine how the world would have turned out if we had gone the “artisanal” route. Imagination and reality rarely match.

    I don’t think I’m so smart or original to be the only one who questioned the common interpretation of Frost’s poem, so I did a search in order to provide a link. This one is pretty good:

    https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/09/11/the-most-misread-poem-in-america/

    FWIW: I went to Wal-Mart last week for motor oil to do an oil change, and while there, took a quick look in the produce section. There was a bag of “artisanal” red onions. I bit.

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    1. JEHR

      In my study of poetry there were often many interpretations of individual poems. Of course, there are many ways to view poetry and no one way is the right way and no one way is the wrong way, in my humble opinion. In fact, the more one reads a poem, the greater the reward in multiple understandings of it (metaphor, simile and all the other poetic devices are used for that purpose). That is the great thing about poetry that other forms of writing may not exhibit: As soon as someone says that one interpretations is wrong, I read the poem again to prove that there are many interpretations that help reclaim the spirit of the poem.

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    2. lyman alpha blob

      Thanks for that. I have Frost on my bookshelf but I don’t care for poetry much and never really gave it a close reading before. I like this interpretation much better than the traditional one and have a greater appreciation for Frost than when I thought he was just using rural wholesomeness to invent cliches ;)

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    3. Darthbobber

      Yes. I think Frost references a problem invariably faced with all who have to interpret the past. We see this in personal psychology all the time, when the desire to have a coherent narrative that “makes sense” colors our interpretations of the significance of various choices, some of which weren’t even choices. And in history when we evaluate what was done against things that look like they could have/should have/might have been done.

      In all such cases the evaluation is biased by the fact that we know the results of decisions actually made, because they produced actual results. The other possibilities have to make do with imagined or extrapolated results, because not being undertaken they produced no results.

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  12. PKMKII

    One factor that the author overlooked with the story about the Palau fishermen is the role of social pressure. Let’s say that before the trade market was introduced, the fishermen decided that instead of giving away their excess fish, they started demanding tributes and resources, far beyond reciprocal, from the villagers in exchange for the fish. That would have quickly made them pariahs in the community, and the backlash would’ve heavily damaged their ability to function in the society. It simply wouldn’t have been worth it for the extra material gains.

    However, the introduction of the trade market, especially the foreign aspect, meant that the social pressure was rendered moot. It didn’t matter if the surplus was now being traded away, the material gains from those foreign trinkets and goods meant that getting cut off from their society’s good graces no longer impacted their ability to function. They can acquire their necessities from the market instead of being dependent on reciprocal social bonds. The artisan economy would need a strong social aspect capable of superseding market forces.

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    1. JTMcPhee

      I recall a sci-fi book I read a long time ago, maybe a novella in “Analog,” about what happens on a world cut off from “the galactic civilization” by said “civilization’s” collapse. And focusing on the political economy of a little archipelago cut off from the main continent by simple distance. And what happened to a nice balanced decent society based on comity, when the “traders” from the mainland showed up with that novel toxic injection, “money,” that allowed the worst of the islanders who could neither hunt, fish, farm nor maintain the simple technologies the islanders lived on for hundreds of years of “being cut off from the modern world.” The sneaky and socially deformed quickly “rose to the top,” and turned craftsmen into wage slaves, and “bought” the sexiest women and choicest food and fish and best lodgings for themselves. Pigs on the porch, per “Animal Farm.” Of course the “successful” New Islanders were in hock to the “traders,” pretty darn quick.

      Same stuff, over and over. There’s a reason Sartre wrote “No Exit,” and why we are still “waiting for godot.”

      Reply
  13. polecat

    Since about 2008 or so, I’ve tried to veer off that ‘superhighway’, but find myself often traveling the parallel frontage road … during which I find I have no option but to merge back into those hellish commuter lanes, while simultanously trying to resist temptation … but, as is often the case, submitting to the conveniences of the various economies of scale. So I hover between two worlds, doing what I reasonably can to live, and give, lighty, being a very small speck .. in a very large ointment jar.

    Reply
  14. Steven Greenberg

    I think one of the important parts of understanding MMT is that there are some things that the commons need doing that don’t profit one individual or one corporation to do. The only solution may be that the controller of the sovereign currency can spend money that is not profitable in the capitalist sense, but necessary for civilization. It is not enough to pump that currency into the system so that the profit motive can decide what to do with it all. Some of it needs to be pumped into the economy by paying for the upkeep of the commons.

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  15. Monica Bee

    I like the article overall, but am wary of the continuing individual choice aspects we are presented with. Right now so many things are framed as choice. Off the top of my head…don’t take a straw, eat organic, get pasture raised eggs, take public transportation, and the like. I would like our society and representatives to control the powers that be…only give us compostable straws, raise our produce in a way that doesn’t hurt the earth, treat animals we keep for food kindly and well, and create transportation that is fast, accessible, and free to no-cost for riders. I want regulation for the common good (including the earth) with decision making that we can all see.

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  16. mike

    Exit ramps need a network of working side-roads if we expect them to carry much traffic. This means building a parallel working sector on the dying stinking corpse of the “super-highway”. This takes time, resources, a viable green economy reflecting true “triple bottom line” costs, and a lot of lost or new creative know-how.

    I keep hoping the poor efficiency in applying factory approaches to nature will sink the entire project well before before we get to a Jared Dimond “Collapse”. Given I share the general pessimism on that happening, I am trying to figure out a few ways to make a prepared soft-landing for my kids generation.

    In monoculture agriculture, those still plowing (much less than 20 years ago) and spraying, about 11 calories of fossil fuel energy is used for 1 calorie of food output. Topsoil is lost. That is loss of a huge future resource. Glyphosate, in the herbicide Round-up is so toxic, that at parts per billion in your food your gut biome, critical for your health and longevity, is compromised (a major reason to buy Organic, or no-spray food). I also work in functional medicine, and the inefficiencies and the health consequences of our market driven mainstream “health system” are as bad as our agricultural system. That said, the farmers are struggling and producing inside the no-win box financial-ized ag put them in as part of Nixon’s Earl Butz “get big or get out” pro-corporate farming polices. Today at all levels of government, bad laws for your food and health are being made, contributing to broader ecological collapse.

    Here on the RockingEweRanch in Oregon we are starting to follow Mark Shepard’s Regeneration Agriculture, a variant of the Permaculture class of minimizing externalized costs, investing in Natural Capital to over the long-term bet on the dynamic systems of life to out perform capitalism/neo-con thermodynamically wasteful entropic destruction. When mature, such an anaimal/plant system can, using solar power far more efficiently, over most of the year, can yield more food with less work and radically less fuel.

    In Dimond’s book, a few examples exist of places where the political economic elites, after the handwriting couldn’t be denied, did not fatally obstruct a solution and avoided Collapse. Occasionally, a culture has pulled itself back from the brink in time…but not many.

    The conversion to a livable “roadway”, takes time, money, learning and work to implement changes. Scaled examples of success are critical. The internet has been a huge help in spreading good memes/explainations (unfortunately, bad ones too). And even with a roadmap it takes a lot to reproduce them in different environments.

    I have some hope that the slow food movement will be a partner in the needed transition. But bad explanations, such as veganism, that have detrimental health and ecological effects, despite the hype, and however laudable the moral intentions, end up supporting the monocropped grain so-called “Green Revolution” plowed flat field monocultures.

    The time needed to reverse key sectors of the economy is substantial. Learning curves are long and beset with easy mistakes to make and already climate stressed species. Some time can be saved if one has the cash. But to make the change with modest investment takes time, experiment, and imagination. It is a creative act to reinvent a sustainable Permaculture in a new location. You can’t rethink and rebuild everything at once, so diesel fuel tractors are sure useful as tools, even though we could already be running on Hydrogen if we really had an intelligent market/environment system.

    Rebuilding civilization was easier when the Collapse was localized. They just moved to a non-degraded patch of the Earth and survived. What do we do when a highly globalized world has run most ecosystems past their robustness capacity? And “Climate Change”, the most massive inefficiency and unintended consequence is making the delay and the denial that much more costly and dangerous.

    We need creative tools to increase the feedback loops on stupid Markets, or encourage runaway forward loops on the Marketeers.

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  17. susan the other

    I don’t think Rachel Carson has been ignored. Not in the 60s and certainly not now. Before those crazy 50s the earlier generation of environmentalists were busy writing books and gaining a following. That did not stop. It seems like none of this had an impact when we see the devastation of the superhighway – but it would have much worse. I think lots of the response to environmental devastation has gone under the radar and today we are on the verge of embracing sustainability in a very serious way. The jobs guarantee program will be a good tool to get things going. And Alt’s suggestion that we rethink money and capitalism so that we reward sustainable artisan lifestyles is certainly an idea whose time has come. Anybody who goes against this logic is swimming against history. Rethinking money is such a civilization-changing concept. Using money to survive, essentially. But not difficult to do. We’ve been getting our little duckies in a row since I read Silent Spring. I’ve watched it with lots of optimism. Indeed, what is money for? I’ll start a corner store and name it ‘The Artisan’.

    Reply
    1. J.D. ALT

      Thanks susan the other for not wandering off the road into the weeds—and for seeing and stating the essential proposition of a short essay.

      Reply
  18. juliania

    Neither the author nor Rachel Carson misused the Frost poem. They both took it as the starting point for an explanation of two different roads, so I don’t think that would be a fair judgement to make. Rachel comes right out in the quotation from her to say that no, the two roads we face are different from the ones in Frost’s poem.

    “…unlike the roads in Frost’s familiar poem…”

    She, and this author as well, have made an important opening distinction, leaving the poem itself at a very early stage in her comparison. One might say that the poem IS the road not taken – that would clarify the message of the article. There is no misuse involved.

    Reply
  19. art project

    I am so late to this party but I have been mulling this exact idea over for a while for a comic book I wanted to write, and I came up with the idea that a policy which prohibited anything but people or raw materials to be shipped (it required high speed trains or something like it magnetized auto pilotable pods that function like fish in a school on our highway system) would create the policy conditions for true widespread artisanship, or at least local production to meet local and tourist needs. you can hire someone to come and teach your community to brew the best beer or help you set up your brewery, but you can’t get wholesale beer shipped in, you have to go to the place you want to try their beer, or maybe someone brings it as a gift?
    Obviously lots of tricky details that a fictional story could brush over broadly, but there is part of me that thinks this would help build economies at the scale of humans, not corporations and other extractors of wealth and power..
    I agree with the localize and virtualize commenter!

    Reply

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