Techno-optimists have been proclaiming the beginning of the age of abundance, given how fast computing power is growing and how many solutions the power of the crowd will supposedly make possible.
Meanwhile, realists point out that raw materials – not just the fossil fuels that power (so-called) modern civilization, but also the rare earths and other minerals necessary to produce high-tech tools and toys (including those that would be necessary for many a dreamed-of high-tech sustainable society) – are becoming scarce; environmentalists proclaim the beginning of the Great Disruption.
Even agricultural land has recently become an object of financial speculation, and it is in this obvious intersection of human life and happiness with nature (if a domesticated and cultivated one) that things come to a head.
After all, what people tend to forget, particularly the more fascinated they get by high technology, is that the very foundation of our lives still lies with the ecosystem services and energy provided by our environments. Food, not least, but also influences on water (cycles, cleaning, and availability), soil fertility, health and pleasure, provision of resources other than food,…
Even just higher prices for oil could have tremendous effect on those basic necessities for life, as they make it more costly to produce food in “conventional” ways that are highly dependent on an input of petrochemicals (oil-derived fertilizers and pesticides as well as the fuel for the tractors to get them onto the fields, to seed and to harvest, as well as to process and distribute that food).
Thus, for a world in disruption – and looking for better lives and happiness – local production (of necessities, not everything) in ways that fit in with the ecological workings of the world and the particular areas (and therefore also, population numbers that equally fit in) will again be of the essence.
Contemporary (crazy) lives of convenience are threatened by this, and therefore, the issue is commonly discussed as if talking about the end of civilization. Alternatives are difficult to imagine and, from the current perspective, certainly less convenient and easy, so that the problems and complications standing in their way are immediately focused on – and denial sets in.
It is in this context, though, that good foundations for better lives – indeed, the very foundations of human civilization – and the true abundance in this world are also to be found.
After all, whereas the commodified life makes it necessary to pay for everything you need – not just luxury, but even the very essentials for life – the bounty of nature only requires some kind of opportunity (access), and the knowledge and skill to support it and be supported by it.
Rain falls from the sky and nourishes everything. The sun shines, the wind blows, water flows, plants grow, animals procreate… and it is in cultivating the chances offered by these things that human societies have flourished and civilizations developed.
Only very recently have we built an industrial modernity using different, fossil, resources and making everything dependent on extreme inputs, used to change the cycles into straightforward machines of production. In the process, we made ourselves mere cogs in the same machines of economic growth, having to fulfill a minuscule function rather than living fully as human beings who are at home and of nurturing influence in their surroundings.
It is time we re-learnt to be just a part of our ecosystems again, and thereby be a better influence and more fully human, cultivating nature and our own better ways of life. That does not mean giving up on machines or on life in cities, but getting more intelligent and, really, creative about the ways we do things…
- … not destroying biodiverse environments for single “efficient” or “valuable” products, but modifying them to be more diverse and productive for us (for which there are examples from traditional Mayan rainforest agriculture through much of Europe to the rice terraces of China, and on to the modern perennial crops and food forests of permaculture approaches)
- … not giving up on the trade we’d want or need, but remembering that sailing on waterways may be the most appropriate technology for moving goods – and one that could still be perfected, perhaps
- … quitting with the discussion of whether city life or rural life (or other “this” or “that”) were better and instead making it fit into and work as the (parts of) ecosystems they are, with urban agriculture and greenbelts as well as denser, more walkable and efficient neighborhoods for the one, less sprawl and other overconsumption on land that should be productive for the other…
Many of these approaches, fascinatingly enough, used to be the norm simply because there were no other sources of energy and materials than those which were available locally. With all the additional knowledge and skill we have (supposedly) acquired, surely we can do better, finding the middle ground of life?
It will not be easy, it will certainly not go without thinking and experimentation – but that hard but meaningful and thoughtful work for ourselves, our communities, and for better futures is just what we need, for survival as well as happiness.