For as long as folks have had things to trade, and other folks to trade with, they’ve been figuring out ways to exchange goods.
Now, I’m not the person to ask about the history of commerce. But somewhere along the line making a profit out of otherwise fair exchanges crept into the picture. Over time, the distance and scope of trade also increased. Initially human in scale, trade traditionally had a personal aspect. Take the Silk Road, for example, where traders mixed with many others on the long journey. There were many nights spent in camps and villages and regional hubs as traders moved from place to place. Connecting with others was part survival, part smart business, part simply a human tendency.
Today the distances might be the same, but the speed and energy is much greater as goods are shipped, flown and driven to from door to door with an expectation of efficiency, regularity and consistency. Moreover, trade is less optional and varied as one business depends on the next in an interwoven fabric of specialization and corporate integration. There may be some dinners, or coffees, but only between Tweets.
One thing many businesses have in common today are long supply lines. Indeed, many are only able to operate through access to cheap and abundant energy. They use that energy unconsciously both philosophically, and in pure business accounting. Their environmental impacts are not part of their balance sheets, keeping the true costs of production out of the picture. Too often, they only think on terms of innovation for innovation’s sake, consequences be damned.
Innovation within boundaries
Now, innovation and passion are born of creativity — something we all yearn to express. And with today’s innovations so tied to energy, this sets up a vulnerability for those passions and innovations. What does human creativity look like in a world of declining energy resources and environmental degradation?
It may be cliché but, as is said, necessity is the mother of invention. Resilience, or the ability to withstand shocks, a central tenant of the Transition Movement, offers some insight into the creativity of the future. And given that transition takes Permaculture as it’s inspiration, and Permaculture looks to nature for its model, Nature is a good place to start to learn about resilience.
Nature, the perfect model
Pristine ecosystems sometimes look chaotic and messy at first glance. What’s missing in this cursory view is that myriad relationships embedded in an ecosystem reflect lengthy development of interdependencies and, in a sense, problem solving that happened within that natural community, whatever the vagaries of weather and the unexpected might have brought.
Sadly, our modern, urban communities appear anything but resilient.
An E. coli scare in one of the reservoirs in my hometown of Portland, Oregon found us in a supermarket line at nearly midnight waiting for bottled water—the shelves had been emptied earlier that evening by customers who were quicker off the mark.
A labor strike in Britain a few years back had gas stations running dry, and roads empty, along with food disappearing off grocery shelves. All within just a few days of the crisis.
Some analysts say that modern society, with its corporate hegemony, long supply chains and dependence on cheap energy can only hold for three days when deliveries cease. Much of what we take for granted is held in place, amazingly well, by only a couple of threads.
If they break, there’s no backup.
Resilience asks us to build relationships and look for partnerships that will be beneficial not only to ourselves but also to the other. It suggests we build a multitude of connections so that our communities rest on a web of relationships. But for us to build relationships, resilience calls us to reach out and respect what others have to offer. It asks how our actions affect others.
Resilience is not created if we gain at the others’ expense. By others I’m not just referring to other people, but also the more-than-human world of this planet.
The limits of planned obsolescence
All of our actions have consequences, the deeper outcomes of which can be so far in the future or so far from our field of experience that we’ll never see them. Indeed, many are so far away from our direct experience that we’ve erased the consequences from our minds, our lives and the bottom line.
No where is this more apparent than in big business.
Take Apple as an example. Based in large part on the vision of recently departed CEO Steve Jobs, technological leaps have taken place over the last few decades that have profoundly impacted individuals, business and culture across a wide spectrum.
But it’s not without its costs.
My iPhone 3G comes to mind. I’ve had it for three years, but it’s no longer supported by Apple. It’s sluggishness when running third party software is painful, and Apple’s iPhone software updates are no longer compatible with it. It’s some comfort then that the blogosphere is rife with rumors about Apple’s next gadget release in October. At least I can count on obsolescence to save me from good technology gone bad. Or initially, anyway. That is, if I don’t consider the hidden costs of endless upgrades on more than just my budget.
To everything there is a season…
Resilience comes out of ecological world. It’s not a place or context that works with planned obsolescence. Everything has a place and a use, whether it’s springing into life or in stages of decay.
Built-in obsolescence produces short term gains at the expense of a physical mess for the future. The products can’t be recycled. When their lifespan is done they sit in landfills, often leeching poisons. And the profits from selling them are concentrated in the hands of a relative few. A resilient community, in contrast, looks into how much of the outputs from its businesses go back into enriching the communities that they spring from.
Nevertheless, the “ever-new” innovation model is so deeply ingrained as being necessary for growth, development and even health, that the ethical concerns are sidelined at best, dismissed outright at worst.
Nonetheless, working without boundaries on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster.
Consciousness aids choices
Within Buddhist meditation, a tradition I’ve long practiced, it’s not unusual to take a few simple vows as a part of one’s practice. These might include commitments to be truthful, to speak gently, and to refrain from taking intoxicants.
Buddhism posits that all actions start with the mind, whether consciously or not. However, by bringing some control to our physical actions, we are forced to look at our minds and start to take notice of the noise that is always channeling through them. If this is done with commitment, our minds start to become quiet and so lay the ground for our formal meditation sessions. In essence we have put some boundaries on our actions for greater benefits and contentment later on.
Collective genius in the big picture
My intent here is not to stifle the amazing ingenuity within humanity or a given person. Ingenuity is exactly what the Transition Movement seeks to tap — our collective genius. Transition encourages us to vision together and build resilient communities for now and the future.
Even so, I am calling into question the lack of boundaries when ecological integrity and future generations are not factored in.
The creation of such boundaries suggests that what we regard as innovation today must change going forward. At the same time, new breakthroughs will fit into an emerging, more holistic paradigm, meaning future innovation will still happen, they’ll simply be appropriate to a larger view of reality.
Realizing our potential
Those who already prescribe to a Permaculture view, aspire to follow Permaculture’s three principles of earth care, people care and fair share. Follow these and you’ll be guided by deep and profound principles that prod you to ask deeper questions of your actions.
Innovation doesn’t stop there — it only just begins.
As the Transition movement’s co-founder Rob Hopkins asked at the end of the 2011 Transition Network Conference in Liverpool, England, “Has a new, emergent culture which embraces resilience and localization, equity and partnership, even scratched the surface of its potential?” He thought that the answer was a resolute “no.”
— David Johnson, Transition Voice