Sunday, 23 November 2008

Max And Cornelius

Max Powerdown and Cornelius Copian were stuck in a small village, surrounded by trackless desert on all sides. They had no idea which direction to travel in, nor how wide the expanse of desert was. All they knew was that they needed to escape the village, which was slowly dying, and move to a better place.

Within the village were two stalls. One, a purveyor of food, the other selling second hand wares and handcrafted goods. Max and Cornelius each had one hundred dollars in their wallets to spend.

Cornelius examined the food stall, and then moved on the to second hand wares shop. He was inspired by what he saw there. An old boiler, some lengths of copper tubing, and a serviceable pram immediately caught his eye. He considered for some time, and then decided that the best course of action would be to spend his funds on these items and cobble up a steam powered perambulator to speed across the desert, though this would mean using up the best part of his monetary resources. Max on the other hand, had considered these things, and believed a different approach was in order, stocking up on food and water, and a slow march across the desert. The funds he would be left with would allow him to take advantage of any opportunities or cope with any problems that might arise during the journey.

Max and Cornelius discussed their respective plans, going over the merits and problems of each. Cornelius proposed that Max invest in his project, allowing them to purchase resources to build a steam-car twice the size to accommodate both of them. Max argued that this would require twice as much wood and water, and so get both of them only half as far. On the other hand, he indicated, if Cornelius were to purchase food, sacks and waterskins then they would be able to carry much more food and water, as well as having more monetary resources available during their journey.

"Who knows what we might need to purchase once we make it out of this infernal desert?", Max finished.

The two argued for some time, and eventually agreed to disagree. Cornelius spent ninety-five of his one hundred dollars on the items to build his steam-car and set to work. Max spent thirty dollars on three sturdy extra-large waterskins, a large hessian sack and enough food to last himself two weeks. Climbing to the top of one of the stunted trees that surrounded the oasis at the centre of the village he examined the desert around and picked a likely landmark to aim for, a rocky hill out at the edge of the horizon. After drinking deeply from the oasis and filling his waterskins, he slung them and his sack of food over his shoulder and set out.

Two days later Cornelius had completed his steam-car. He filled it up with water from the oasis, collected a load of twigs and branches and set a small fire under the boiler, stowing the rest on board. Climbing the tree as Max had done, he spied the same landmark and determined that it would be his destination. He purchased himself a sweetmeat for luck with his last five dollars and boarded his steam powered perambulator, setting out at a clipping pace across the sands.

By evening Cornelius reached the rocky hill, and found Max camped there. He was hungry and thirsty by this time, and asked Max whether he might impose upon his generosity and share his food and water. Max considered this for a time. Cornelius indicated that it would be to their mutual benefit, as once he was free of the desert he would send help back. Max thought this was reasonable enough, so shared food and water with Cornelius.

The next morning, the two scrutinised the horizon from the lofty vantage of the hill, and spied a thin streamer of smoke out at the horizon. They agreed to make it their mutual destination, though Cornelius would need to take a more circuitous route due to a wide expanse of rocky ground visible in the near distance. By their calculations Cornelius should reach the destination in about two days, whilst it would take Max six days, even by the more direct route.

So they parted, Cornelius speeding ahead in the steam-car, Max trudging along at a measured pace.

The source of the smoke turned out to be further away than they had estimated. On the second day of travel out from the hill, the steam-car was still a day away from what could now be seen to be another small village. At that point, the last of the wood burned away in a puff of smoke and the steam-car shuddered to a halt.

Cornelius did some quick calculations and judged that Max was still two days behind, but somewhere over to the west in amongst the rocky ground. He, on the other hand, was still two days walk from the village. A check on the boiler revealed he had enough for a day of travel at most, but nothing to carry it in.

Should he drink his fill and hope he could make it to the village? Should he push his steam-car to the village, even though it would require so much effort that it might take him three days to get there and that he may run out of water before he reached half way? Should he head west in the hope of catching Max? Cornelius was at a loss, and slumped down into the sand in a state of despondency.

Meanwhile, far behind, but still well provisioned, Max trudged along in stoic fashion, unaware that his fellow was caught in such a plight.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Livelihood Security, Worlds Apart

The FAO or Food And Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, has a publication available called "The household livelihood security concept"

It is interesting reading mainly because it highlights something of a disconnect between attitudes toward the condition of people in the third world, and a certain blindness to the plight, soon to be so greatly magnified, of people in the first world. We suggest and assist people in the third world to actively work to improve their livelihood security, yet in the first world we often have rules, regulations, economic and social hurdles to taking similar affirmative action to ensure security of livelihood. Indeed we actively encourage people to be more dependent on external agents for our livelihood, we are exhorted to it with every advertisement we see.

The start of the paper discusses how the idea of food security was once based on national and global food supplies, and how this changed when the people researching in those areas realised that it ultimately came down to whether individual families had access to the resources needed to secure the food. In a nutshell, a country could be awash with food yet people could still be starving if they didn't have a penny to their name.

Ideas about food security developed from the 70's through to the present day to gradually include a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to food security. It was discovered, for example, that people don't necessarily choose food over all other needs when they have constrained resources:

People may choose to go hungry to preserve their assets and future livelihoods. It is misleading to treat food security as a fundamental need, independent of wider livelihood considerations.
So for example they might choose to go hungry rather than eat the seed for next season's crop. This evolution in understanding has resulted in the "household livelihood security" concept.

Household livelihood security is defined as adequate and sustainable access to income and resources to meet basic needs (including adequate access to food, potable water, health facilities, educational opportunities, housing, time for community participation and social integration). Livelihoods can be made up of a range of on-farm and off-farm activities which together provide a variety of procurement strategies for food and cash. Thus, each household can have several possible sources of entitlement which constitute its livelihood. These entitlements are based on the household's endowments and its position in the legal, political and social fabric of society (Drinkwater and McEwan, 1992). The risk of livelihood failure determines the level of vulnerability of a household to income, food, health and nutritional insecurity. Therefore, livelihoods are secure when households have secure ownership of, or access to, resources and income earning activities, including reserves and assets, to offset risks, ease shocks and meet contingencies (Chambers, 1989).
The ironic thing is that aid organisations are developing programs to improve livelihood security in third world regions, but right here in the first world we are beginning to see cracks appearing that indicate that we have very little in the way of livelihood security, or even an understanding of how to go about getting some.

From WSJ - More Utility Bills Go Unpaid we read that more and more people are having their essential services disconnected, leaving them without many of the elements of "household livelihood security" as the economic crisis deepens. Whilst talking about the situation in the US, no first world country is immune.

State regulators say they have noticed that power shutoffs have moved up the economic chain. "We're seeing an uptick in middle-class people who have never been in this situation before," said Eric Hartsfield, director of the customer-service division of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
As the situation gets worse, many in the first world will be faced with a reality very similar to, or worse than, that of people within the third world, entirely due to a total lack of livelihood security.

Security implies a measure of resilience and adaptability in the face of changing conditions. Your average suburban shop assistant has a very small base of non-practical skills to fall back on, and you could pretty safely put money on the guess that food production or wildfood harvesting aren't in that repertoire.

This is yet another argument for people to begin learning to be generalists and to stop outsourcing so many of the essentials of their existence. Everyone needs to take stock of their livelihood security and work at improving it. More of the market economy needs to be recaptured and withdrawn back into the household economy to ensure survival during tough times.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Rhizome Growth, In Action!

Have you ever encountered a new idea that draws together various scraps of ideas in your head, so much so that you begin to see examples of it all around you? The first time I ever encountered the idea of systems analysis as a lad was a bit like this. That you could examine the interactions of things and deduce systems of activity was the most amazing thing to me. This surely led to an appreciation of things like permaculture and computer programming, though the two may seem to be from opposite ends of the earth.

Anyhow, I'd like to give you a link to what I think is rhizome growth in real life:

A New Patch In The Neighbourhood

Gavin now has a new seedling rhizome node right next door, I would guess in the largest part due to his example and enthusiasm, as well as due to his ability and readiness to assist with getting started. Gavin's neighbourhood now has the potential to be more resilient as a result.

I see the rhizome idea as being a model of an ideal system. Sure, most ideals remain just that, but it is an ideal that ties together a lot of different threads, and answers some unanswered questions. It's also being implemented at this very moment. What we end up with will most likely not follow the exact plan, but I don't believe it was intended in that way.

Hamlets in the city might end up being, rather than extended family groups, groups of 5 - 10 neighbouring homes, all working together to provide their own food. Hamlets in the country may well follow the model more closely, where there is more room and more work for children and the elderly, especially as PO kicks in and there is less opportunity outside of the home. Still, there is nothing I can see to prevent existing community living structures from existing well within the framework.

As I see it, the core tenets are those of self-reliance in small groups (ideally sized to foster that self-reliance) linked together in networks that by their nature provide an impetus against centralisation of authority and management, and that facilitate local trade over non-local.

This kind of growth is something that we could rationally expect to occur during tough times. The only reason we wouldn't see such networks forming would be in the case that existing centres of power act to hold on to that authority, for example comandeering farmland and creating government distribution centres for food, would quickly put a stop to such growth. Anti-stockpiling laws and confiscation of food would be another. Both things we would hope would never occur in our society and day and age.