Come the Climate Crisis and the End of Oil, Who is Going to Save Who?


illustration from Freakangels via Worldchanging

Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing and Alex Steffen of Worldchanging got together for coffee and had an idea.

"What would it be like, we wondered, if folks who knew tools and innovation left the comfy bright green cities and traveled to the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities and started helping the locals get the tools they needed. "

"Imagine these folks...Helping rural landowners apply climate foresight and farm biodiversity...creating local knowledge management systems, launching microfinance projects, mobilebanking and complementary currencies..Hacking together DIY windmills and ad hoc smart grids, communication systems, water treatment systems -- and getting really good adaptive reuses of outdated infrastructure. In other words, these folks would be redistributing the future at a furious clip."

I might suggest that Cory and Alex watch King Corn before they send out their Peace Corps of Green Urbanites to the "climate-smacked farm communities." Farmers know more about microfinance, mobile banking, Geolocation and computers than most people; they have to keep on top of the latest subsidies, finance their crop and equipment out on the raggedy edge of credit limits, keep on top of weather, fertilizer prices, and make costly bets on which product is going to move in an environment where the the subsidies and the entire farming system is designed around corn, because that's what government policy said it should be. If the policy was to grow organic tomatoes, they would, and could.

Or they could go to the rust belt cities where people have been building complicated machinery for generations. A modern Escalade is a lot more complicated than a wind turbine and a lot more sophisticated than a Toyota Yaris; it's just the wrong product. There is nothing you can teach them about how to put things together, they can do it in their sleep. In World War II they switched from making cars to sophisticated airplanes in a matter of months.

The issue isn't knowledge or skill; there is more of that in America than anywhere else in the world.

It's Leadership.
They don't know more about making wind turbines in Germany or small cars in Japan, they just saw it coming and did it, and the government provided incentives to help. The American government saw the fossil-fueled American way of life as "non-negotiable" and created an economy based on consumption rather than production, on building houses, filling houses with cheap imported stuff, and driving between it all.

It's Corporatism.
We let the lobbyists set policy and ignore the scientists and the engineers.

It's Design.
Well for me, it is always about design, but we have built the wrong stuff in the wrong place and we built it to be cheap instead of good. When my '65 Beetle broke down I could take the engine apart by the side of the road but now I can't even do a tuneup, as the goal of design of everyday objects changed from building to last and to fix, to building to throw away and replace.

Alex and Cory, I think you have it exactly backwards. We have to learn from the farmers how to keep things working with spit and baling wire; we have to learn from the rust belt workers how to build things with our own hands and maintain them. The knowledge and skills we need to survive are out there; we have to learn from them, not them from us.

There is a wonderful line from the movie Apollo 13, where Jim Lovell's old mom in a wheelchair is asked if she is afraid about him getting down in one piece. She responded "If you could put wings on a washing machine, my Jimmy could land it." That is what they do best in America, and that is what may well save us.

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