Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Household System

A busy household is a complex system, made up of innumerable processes that take various inputs, and produce a multitude of outputs. We don't often stop to consider how complex a household is, especially if we take full advantage of the ability to outsource many of the processes that go into them, an ability that is increasingly more at risk from disruptions of various kinds.

I guess the first question we need to ask is, what is a household? There is a dictionary definition, but I want something that describes it in real world examples. Is an inner city apartment with a working couple with no kids a household? Sure it is. What about a village home with a few fruit trees and a couple of chooks in the back yard, owned by parents who commute to the local big city and have half a dozen children? Of course it is. A household is going to be any place that people dwell when they aren't working, any place that they consider home, any place that is the focus of their lives (with the exception of the work obsessed of course!)

All households have "needs", or inputs, required in order to function. For most these would be things like water, food, electricity, gas, clothing, furniture etc etc, which for the inner city apartment all come from beyond the boundary of the household system. They may even go so far as to order in cooked meals, or go out for dinner, further reducing the number of processes carried out within the household (ie cooking & cleaning) by outsourcing those processes to people within the economy. Or perhaps they have a balcony vegetable garden, and love to cook at home, in which case they have brought not only the processes of preparing and cooking food within the household, but also growing that food.

In thinking about things like peak oil and climate change, I feel we need to re-assess how much we outsource to the wider economy. Outsourcing carries with it certain risks, which are relative to how critical the outsourced process is to survival. Below is a diagram representing the various inputs to a household, and how critical they are to survival (roughly). It's rather arbitrary, due to the sheer number of factors that could influence such things, and some groupings ("Sundries" for example) contain some items that are a whole lot more essential than others.

The main point to be gained from the diagram is that some items are inherently much more critical than others. Water is the easiest example to consider. Without it we come to a gory end. In general the majority of our population here in Australia relies on external agencies to ensure the security of their supply of water. There is a growing trend in recent years towards pulling this input back within the boundary of the household, but in large measure, if anything were to go wrong with the municipal supplies, most people would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

We can assess our priorities by considering things from two perspectives. The first is criticality to survival. The second is ease of inclusion within the household system. Water is, relatively speaking, easy enough to include within most household systems, at least for the time being, and it is critical to survival, so it should come out at the top of the list of things to take control of.

On the other hand, sundries such as beauty products are not essential, so can be left outside the boundaries of the household system, except where their production might be a rewarding pastime or a source of income. Food, in contrast, is critical, and not always so easy to reliably include within the system. It's critical nature far outweighs any consideration of the difficulty of including it, so it should be up there just after water.

Another important factor to consider is that not all processes are simple, and this is even more the case when we look at things with an understanding of the potential impacts of peak oil. What happens if we can no longer get cheap tools and machinery imported from China anymore? How do we achieve even the seemingly simple task of making a loaf of bread if the supermarket is running low on everything, and the power is out? In the modern world it's as "easy" as nipping to the shop for the ingredients, measuring them out, throwing it all in the breadmaker and forgetting it until we hear the bell ring. Things could be very different in the future.

We need to look at the complete end-to-end process and see what each step of it requires. We need to break down each process and consider all the hidden processes that contribute to the functioning of our top-level process. Then we can get a true understanding of what is needed, and decide whether having a loaf of bread is critical enough to warrant doing the work needed to incorporate it into our household system.

To illustrate further, let's revisit the water issue. Incorporating water into the household system requires a number of inputs that are only available thanks to modern society. Water tanks, piping for storm water, pumps, piping, valves, connections and taps for delivery. Stop and think for a moment how you would put together a water system if you couldn't visit the hardware store for some PVC stormwater pipe, or some copper or poly pipe to get that water into the household. A couple of pieces of galvanised sheeting could be bent into a functional stormwater pipe, and you could use a bucket to get the water indoors, but where do these items come from, if not from the hardware store?

From time to time over the next few months I hope to look in more depth at each of the elements in the diagram above, explore some processes in depth, and try to get a picture of what elements can profitably be included in a household system, which parts should be rushed into ASAP given that they can best be achieved whilst modern materials are available at cheap prices, and which can be developed at a later time using whatever is to hand.

It will also give a clearer idea of what should be outsourced to the community level, and how far from the household that can be without greatly increasing the level of risk. A disruption in the supply of beauty products from France is not going to be a life threatening problem, but lack of food from the farms only 30km away just may be.

Ultimately it may provide something of a whole-household model, and give a good picture of skills and supplies are needed to convert the household from being a net importer to a net exporter, which will be the key to surviving the future.

These posts will all be labelled under "The Household System".

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