Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Blindness to Systems

“I feel my fate in what I cannot fear,” poet Theodore Roethke wrote in his most famous poem, “The Waking.” He could have been speaking for any of us; as individuals, communities, or societies, it’s not the problems we dread but the ones we’re unable to take seriously, or fail to recognize as problems at all, that end up dragging us down.

Some of the responses to last week’s Archdruid Report post brought that point forcefully home to me. The theme of that post, as regular readers will remember, is that it’s meaningless to talk about the efficiency of machines vis-a-vis human beings unless the costs of the whole system needed to produce, maintain, and operate the machines is compared to the costs of the whole system needed to do the same for the human beings. In response to the post, a flurry of critics on and off the comments page of this blog presented arguments that simply ignored the system costs I’d spent the entire post discussing. I would have had no complaints if they’d disagreed with my analysis, or even argued against the inclusion of system costs altogether – the logic of dissensus, the deliberate cultivation of divergent strategies, is as relevant to my work as it is anywhere else – but that’s not what they did. Instead, they acted as though the issue of system costs had never been raised at all.

It’s a fascinating lapse of reason, and it keeps on surfacing in contemporary discussions of the deindustrial future. The recurrent debates on the future of the internet here on The Archdruid Report come forcefully to mind. The point I’ve made there is that the survival of the internet doesn’t depend on whether maintaining some form of internet is technically possible in a post-peak world, on the one hand, and desirable on the other; it depends on whether the internet will be able to pay for itself, and successfully compete for scarce dollars against lower-tech ways of sending letters and selling porn, in a future when energy and resources are costly and harshly limited, while human labor is abundant and cheap.

With unnerving predictability, in turn, those who want to dispute my suggestion simply insist that the internet will survive because it’s technically feasible in a post-peak world, on the one hand, and desirable on the other. They don’t challenge the economic issue; they don’t address it at all; they simply raise their voices and talk even more loudly about the technical feasibility and desirability of the internet. What makes this all the more intriguing is that these are not stupid people; one and all, they’re bright and, at least by the standards of the present age, well-educated; catch them on this one point, though, and the result is a mental equivalent of the famous Blue Screen of Death.

From a broader perspective, this same inability to think about whole systems pervades contemporary industrial culture. You don’t have to go as far as the dwindling community of space-colony fans to find good examples, though that’s one I’ll be discussing down the road a bit; just notice how many people seem to believe that all the garbage and pollution they generate goes to a mythical place called “Away,” or that the Earth will provide us with an infinite supply of crude oil if we just keep drilling holes in her. (“We can’t be out of petroleum, we’ve still got drilling rigs left.”) For that matter, the paralogical thinking that drives speculative bubbles – if everybody is going to get rich by investing in the gimmick du jour, what does that suggest will happen to the value of money? – has rarely if ever been as popular as it is in modern America, and it depends as completely on a blindness to the implications of whole systems as any of the points I’ve mentioned.

I’d like to discuss another example at this point, though, because it bears directly on one of the central themes I’ve been developing here in recent months. What would you say, dear reader, if I told you that I’ve come up with a way to eliminate unemployment in the United States – yes, even in the face of the current economic mess? What if I explained that it would also improve the effective standard of living of many American families and decrease their income tax burdens? And that it would also increase our economic resilience and sustainability, and simultaneously cause a significant decrease in the amount of automobile traffic on America’s streets and highways? Would you be all for it?

No, dear reader, you wouldn’t. Permit me to explain why.

Right now, many two-income families with children in the United States are caught in a very curious economic bind. I haven’t been able to find statistics, but I personally know quite a few families for whom the cost of paid child care and one partner’s costs for commuting, business clothes, and all the other expenses of employment, approaches or even exceeds the take-home pay of one partner. Factor in the benefits of shifting to a lower tax bracket, and for a great many of these families, becoming a single-income family with one partner staying out of the paid work force would actually result in an increase in disposable income each month.

This is even before factoring in the financial elephant in the living room of the old one-income family: the economic benefits of the household economy. It’s only in the last half dozen decades that the home has become nothing more than a center of consumption; before then, it was a place where real wealth was produced. It costs a great deal less to buy the raw materials for meals than to pick up something from the supermarket deli on the way home from work, as so many people do these days, or to fill the pantry and the fridge with prepackaged processed food; it costs a great deal less to buy yarn than to purchase socks and afghans of anything like the quality a good knitter can make; it costs a great deal less to grow a good fraction of a family’s vegetables in a backyard garden than to buy them fresh at the grocery, if you can get them at all.

The difference in each case – and examples like this could be multiplied manyfold – is made by the household economy. Economists like to dismiss the household economy as inefficient, but it’s worth remembering that “efficiency” in current economic jargon is defined as labor efficiency – that is an economic process is considered more efficient if it uses less human labor, no matter how wildly inefficent it is in any other sense. Economists also like to dismiss the household economy because it lacks economies of scale, and here they’re on firmer ground. Still, there’s another factor that more than counterbalances this; much of the value of an employee’s labor – as much, as Marxists like to remind us, as the employer can get away with taking – goes to support his employer, while all of the value produced by labor in the household market remains with the family and is used directly, without being mediated through the money economy.

This is why, until quite recently, at least half the adult members of most families, aside from the urban poor, worked in the household economy instead of the money economy. It’s also why a grandparent or two or an unmarried aunt so often found a place in the family setting. This had very little to do with charity; an extra pair of hands that could be employed in the household economy was a significant economic asset to most families. One of the advantages of this, of course, is that elderly people continued to have a valued and productive role in their families and communities, instead of being paid to go away and do nothing until they die, as so many of them are today.

None of these things are any less possible today than they were in the 1920s, or for that matter the 1820s. As a former househusband, I can say this on the basis of personal experience; my wife and I found that we had a better standard of living on her bookkeeper’s salary alone, with a thriving full time household economy, than we had earlier on two salaries with only the scraps of a household economy the two of us could manage after work and commuting. I came in for a certain amount of derision for making that choice, of course, though it’s only fair to say that I got off very lightly in comparison to the abuse leveled, mostly by women, at those women I knew who made a similar decision.

Now of course that touches on one of the most volatile issues touching on the household economy, the politics of gender. For complex cultural reasons, a great many feminists in the 1960s and 1970s came to believe that working for one’s family in the household economy was a form of slavery, while working for an employer in the money economy – often under conditions that were even more exploitative – was a form of liberation. Now it’s certainly true that assigning people to participation in the household economy by gender was unfair, but it’s equally true that assigning them to participation in the money economy on the same basis was no better; for every woman whose talents were wasted in a housewife’s role, there was arguably a man whose life would have been much happier and more productive had he had the option of working full time in the household economy.

Feminism might usefully have challenged the relative social status assigned to the household and money economies, and pressed for a revaluation of work and gender that could have thrown open a much broader field of possibilities to people of both genders; and in fact some thoughtful steps were taken in this direction by a few perceptive thinkers in the movement. In general, though, that turned out to be the road not taken. Instead, the great majority of women simply accepted the social value given to participation in the money economy, demanded access to it for themselves, and got it. In the process, for most Americans, the household economy collapsed, or survived only as a dowdy sort of hobby practiced by the insufficiently fashionable.

Let’s grant at the outset, therefore, that there’s no particular reason why people of one gender ought to be more active in the household economy than people of the other; let’s assume that a great many men will make the choice I did, and work full time in the household economy while the women in their lives work full time for a paycheck. On that basis, is there a point to two-income families shifting gears and becoming families that combine one cash income with a productive household economy? Of course there is, and now more than ever.

To begin with, as already mentioned, a significant number of families with children would gain an immediate boost in their disposable income each month by taking the kids home from daycare, giving up the second commute (and in some cases, the second car as well), dropping the other expenses that come with paid employment, and taking a wild downhill ride through the income tax brackets. A great many more would find that when these benefits are combined with the real wealth produced by the household economy, they came out well ahead. Even those who simply broke even would be likely to find that differences in quality, though hard to measure in strictly economic terms, would make the change more than worthwhile.

Now take a moment to think of the effects on community and society. Take a significant amount of the workforce out of paid employment, and two things happen: first, unemployment rates go down, and second, competition among employers for the remaining workers tends to drive wages up. Some sectors of the economy would be negatively affected, to be sure; sales of convenience foods would decrease, and so would employment in the day care industry, among others; still, these industries would be affected by the contraction in workforce numbers along with all the others, and those employees who needed to find a job elsewhere would be entering a job market where their chances would be much better than they are at present. There would need to be some adjustments, especially to retirement arrangements, but those are going to have to happen fairly soon anyway.

Finally, factor in the impact of such a change on the resilience and sustainability of society. A nation in which a very large fraction of the workforce is insulated from the money economy, and produces a diverse array of goods and services at home for local consumption using relatively simple tools, is a nation that’s much better prepared to face the economic turmoil of the end of the age of cheap oil than a nation where nearly everyone depends for their income, as well as for the goods and services they use every day, on the global economy. A nation in which, let’s say, 30% fewer people have to drive to work than they do today is much better prepared to face the price spikes and shortages that will almost inevitably affect gasoline and other petroleum products in the years to come. A nation in which doing things for yourself again has a recognized social value is much better prepared for a future in which we will have to do much more for ourselves than most people can imagine just now.

So when can we expect the return of the single-income family to become an element of constructive plans for the post-peak future? When will Transition Town programs, let’s say, match up the experienced elderly with novice househusbands and housewives who want to learn how to cook, sew, can, garden, and knit? When will high-profile liberal couples start throwing parties to announce that one member of the pair is quitting paid employment, so that the poor have an easier job market and a better chance at upward mobility? When will people aggressively lobby their congressflacks to get a sizable income tax deduction and special Social Security arrangements for families with one income?

Let’s just say I’m not going to hold my breath. In fact, dear reader, I’m quite confident that even if you belong to that large group of married couples with children who could increase your disposable income by giving up that second job, you won’t do it; in fact, you won’t even run the numbers to see whether it would work for you – and the reason you won’t is that you’re so mesmerized by that monthly check of $2000 a month take-home, or whatever it happens to be, that you can’t imagine giving it up even if you have to spend $2200 a month to get it. That is to say, dear reader, that if you don’t think in terms of whole systems, the fact that the system costs of that second job might just outweigh the benefits will be as incomprehensible to you as a computer would have been to a medieval peasant.

The extraordinary blindness to whole systems that pervades our collective consciousness these days is a fairly recent thing – as recently as the 1970s, talk about system costs got far fewer blank stares and non sequiturs than it does today – and I doubt it will last long in historical terms, if only because the hard edge of Darwinian selection separates adaptive cultural forms from maladaptive ones with the same ruthlessness it applies to genetics. While it remains in place, it will likely cause a great deal of damage, but that in itself will tend to accelerate its replacement with some less dysfunctional habit of thought. Ironically, the Theodore Roethke poem with which I started this post offers a cogent reminder of that. It begins:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We will all, I think, learn a great deal by going where we have to go during the lean and challenging years to come. The hope that we might manage to learn a thing or two in advance of that journey is understandable enough, and the thing has happened now and then in history; still, for reasons already discussed, that hope seems very frail to me just now.


Glenn said...
We did this math a _long_ time ago. We subsist on my military pension, my part time carpentry and our garden. I'm still trying to figure out how to get rid of one of the motor vehicles though.
FWIW, our "cash" income puts our family of three at 75% of poverty level.


4/14/10, 10:02 PM

rabbitwrath said...
Unfortunately there'll have to be something of a shift in many cultural attitudes before the one-income household can become acceptable to many people. We're so defined by our (paid) careers that in giving them up we lose more than just an income - we lose a certain sense of identity, and often the respect of others. Our culture looks down severely on those who choose not to work.

But if the numbers add up, people will eventually make the shift. My reservations are about how this will effect the status of women; you've glossed over the fact that the gender makeup of home-workers is vanishingly unlikely to be 50:50. Perhaps it shouldn't be. But I am not eager for a return to the vulnerability of being economically dependent on a man. The system is exploitative, but I still live freer than my grandmother or great-grandmother did. I suspect it's inevitable, however; One paid worker, one home worker, and their children (not to mention any extended family) have made up a most efficient economic unit for much of history, and once the wild excesses of the current age have started to dwindle, I suspect we'll find ourselves drifting back towards it.

One unexpected side-effect of this return may be the rebirth of the neighbourhood community. This is only anecdotal, but my grandmother claims that it was women starting to work that lead to its breakdown - they no longer had the time to chat on their doorsteps or gossip over the clothesline. I suppose we'll see.

4/14/10, 10:46 PM

Charles said...
Good essay.

My family has experienced this counter-intuitive phenomena of less-gross-income-equals-more disposable-income-and-higher-quality-of-life, but the transistion wasn't a smooth one, nor has it been painless.

I was offered a new job a couple years ago which required relocating, and my wife was pregnant. She agreed to the move on the condition that she could stay at home. I was initially opposed to the idea, not on economic grounds, but psychological grounds (I'd crunched the numbers already and seen that it was economically feasible).

My wife has a Masters degree, and very nearly her PhD, and I did not believe that she would find domestic work to be stimulating or engaging enough. The long story short is that despite her own wishes, being a stay-at-home mom has very literally challenged her sanity, so that now, regardless of the economics (Child care for example is going to consume a significant portion of her expected salary), she is returning to the work-for-pay world.

The economics of our experience have been interesting. Granted, the new job I took included an increase in pay and relocation to an area with a slightly lower cost of living. Still, it's been amazing that it's worked, and at first, neither of us believed that it would.

Some of the lessons we've learned though, that are relevant to your post are that, in order to successfully transition to a single-income household in this society, all parties have to understand the implications of the move.

It also helps to start out with the belief that all work is equal - our society tends to view revenue producing labor as being worth more than work that does not produce revenue. In my case, I've always had the fundamental belief that all work was equal, but my wife hasn't, and in spite of the fact that she was able to view our 'books' and see where the money went, has felt dependent and confined.

Another factor, which is really the same factor restated, is that all parties must actually value the non-monetary benefits of becoming a single-income family. One of the biggest of those, from my perspective at least, has been time - we've both had more of it. If the time isn't valued however, it becomes as burdensome as debt.

4/14/10, 11:00 PM

xhmko said...
Driving to work to pay for the house and garage you need to keep the car you need to get to work...someone once said it more poignantly but that's the gist of it.

I find that when I discuss the idea of being able to work for your supplies rather than working for money to buy your supplies that most people agree that its a good idea but they rarely actually contemplate (beyond the conversation itself) making that change.

The current work environment can have many benefits that the home economy of subsistence cannot provide. But it's not like eradication of anything but gardening and fabric weaving is the goal. I think as you say if 30% of people moved towards a foundation of home economy the effect would be immense and, I feel, beneficial not only for those making the move but for the stability of the greater economy and its resistance to oncoming scarcity of ubiquitous resources.

Also, I'll just add for the sake of gender politics that this household economy no longer has to be thought of in the husband-wife/male-female dynamic. No doubt many people are still loathe to accept queer couples, nevertheless they are quite likely these days to participate openly in your community and deserve a mention here.

4/14/10, 11:07 PM

dltrammel said...
As someone who has had wide swings in income, I was always struck by the fact I seemed to save more money the lesser I made.

As someone who is unmarried and older, I wonder what your thoughts are on those of us in similar circumstances. Communal living arrangements, community co-ops or fraternal organizations come to mind.

Will we once again self generate the tribes, whose members might have to pre-chew our food because we lack our teeth?

4/14/10, 11:13 PM

Lloyd Morcom said...
Hi John — here in my rather remote corner of Australia we have a transition town movement in embryo which has quite a large number of house-husbands in it! I'm one myself. Of course I move in limited circles myself so we may well be a vanishingly small minority in the wider world, or even in Australia.

I know you have your doubts about the transition town concept and so do I (even though I started this group!) but it seems to be what the people want: there is a need for a label or concept on which you can hang your hopes. How it will develop I really don't know as the members of the several groups I've gotten tangled up are a strange collection of types. It may be because they are not age-segregated as the movements of the sixties and seventies tended to be.

However I have to say that the consensus within these groups does tend to come down pretty solidly on the side of the household economy, so don't despair!

4/14/10, 11:24 PM

Ruben said...
I have three things, one quibble and two sycophantasms.

First, I would quibble, that while I think you are exactly right, there is potentially some valuable additional resilience offered by two incomes in our current time of great uncertainty, though only for those smart enough to choose small houses and not max their credit cards.

For those that are interested, I googled "calculator one income two income" and came up with several calculators with different levels of detail.

And finally, I love it when you talk about the death of the internet, though it is bittersweet. It is bitter because I wonder what I have to contribute when you and others say such smart things. It is sweet because when smart people say things I say, I feel smart.

And so I want to be very clear, so everybody know how smart I am, I have been saying for years that the internet is just a fad. ;-)

4/14/10, 11:33 PM

Neon said...
Excellent post. We are doomed, because of the human natural tendency to not become obsessed adequately enough with the cause of the problems, but rather with the symptomatic treatments. I wonder if this tendency was any different in the human history. The Vedas say we are in the Kali Yuga Age, which could be connected with this unlogical limited-view behaviour. I hope different Ages (should start from 2012? I am not sure) engender different logic of thinking in us - especially these about the treatment of the causes and care about the longtime effectiveness of the systems. But it's just my little theory, that gives me a little hope of escaping from this deadly society circle (master/slaves), as we are for thousand years.

With my limited practical knowledge, I would like to be inspired with many options that are possible to pursue by the household person, especially if they live in a flat without a garden. I can't imagine enough useful tasks. But I bet, I will find the inspiration in the comments soon :-)

4/14/10, 11:36 PM

Andrea G. said...
You neglect the fact that for a typical American, not having an income equates with being "dependant". Failure to agressively uproot this perception before one partner exits the workforce can damage the social dynamics of a relationship, even as the couple benefits financially.

4/14/10, 11:43 PM

NorthCreekNews said...
Thank you again for eloquently expressing that which I feel but can't write as well. The same inability to look at whole systems applies to the health care debate. We can't afford not to have health care for everyone if you look at the cost of having inadequate preventative care, people using emergency rooms etc. Bravo to you for your blog.

4/14/10, 11:57 PM

Rhisiart Gwilym said...
This seems like a complete answer to Stuart Staniford's critique of your previous post, JM. Nice!

4/15/10, 12:48 AM

Ken said...
Lovely post, as was the previous one to which this one refers.

I couldn't help recalling news item, from the 1970s I think. A Soviet pilot defected from Siberia with a MIG-25 jet fighter and landed in Japan. US engineers analyzed the airplane and were surprised to find water in the cooling system instead of the alcohol it was designed for. The pilot explained that vodka was in short supply, so the mechanics drank the alcohol intended for the plane and replaced it with water. The plane would have crashed if flown hard enough to stress the cooling system. This is a small example of how it takes very little to undermine a complex system like a jet fighter.

We in the West have such complex societies that few can imagine the interdependencies among systems. Pick any system (e.g., banking, water, electricity, transport) and imagine that it is disrupted or simply unreliable (as are such things in, say, India), then imagine the domino effects on everything else.

Perhaps Americans will one day keep their old PCs running, much as Cubans kept 1950s cars alive. The Internet is another story.

4/15/10, 1:08 AM

Jamie said...
I have to agree with the value of the household economy. We have one job with 6 children between the two of us (shared with ex-partners) but we have steadily been moving to develop our household economy. Moving close to work and renting a place with agricultural zoning (in the city no less), we have ventured into keeping first chickens and then goats and raised bed gardening. We get comments from the neighbors and several have been inspired to start or restart their own gardens. Our children have been learning about baking bread and making healthcare products from honey and we now have our sights on using goat milk. We are still a long way from self-sufficiency but we are on the path and we struggle with issues of how to invest in a property for solar etc when you are renting, getting out of debt etc... but the quality of our lives continues to improve.. I should mention my day job is as a systems engineer.....and yes I did read Limits to Growth as a college student back in the 70's,..which lead me to the space program, alternative technology and of course druidry:)

4/15/10, 1:26 AM

Llewellyn said...
Another great post JMG!
I find it very curious that people think the Internet will be still running in a post peak world, I’m wondering if these are the same people who believe in the mythical singularity?

4/15/10, 1:51 AM

Paul said...
I know what you're getting at with household economies.

I think increasingly, the costs trade-offs will make skew more and more towards household economies.

If you raise garden vegetables and prepare your own food, you cut down on grocery bills.

If you hang clothes out on the line to dry as my mother-in-law does, you save on energy costs.

If or an elderly relative watches over your children, you skip on having to spend $650 per child per month to have them in daycare. You could even take in caring for an extra child for the money that brings in. These are choices many parents already are making until the children are ready for school, because schools provides "free" babysitting.

I hear there are 1.8 million LESS households in the U.S. today than there were 2 years ago. People have moved in with siblings, parents, children, relatives, friends, etc. Doing so allows them to reallocate their resources more efficiently.

I think long-term foundations should start providing grant money for people to settle and homestead semi-rural land. towards a more self-sufficient, inter-generational family farm situation, where each home sits on several acres linked by light rail or river traffic, with these farms on the outskirts of regional cities.

4/15/10, 1:58 AM

frans said...
Thanks for the article and all the previous articles that you take time to write. It is much appreciated and relevant even to a South African.


4/15/10, 2:02 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Great post, although cultural programming being what it is, should elicit some interesting responses.

The household economy takes effort and time. About a decade and half ago we made the decision to shop at markets of which there are quite a few in Melbourne. Now we are rurally based we shop at farm gates (awesome quality and taste), local small suppliers and markets for all other food stuffs. We also grow our own which helps.

One of the things we quickly discovered was that it was actually cheaper to buy the raw materials and cook meals from scratch than to buy any form of processed foods. On reflection this now seems common sense.

Getting back to cultural programming though, I have heard a lie often repeated from quite intelligent and educated people that fresh fruit and vegetables are more expensive than processed food. It took me ages to work out what they meant.

The general gist is that the time involved and hassle in obtaining reasonable fresh fruit and vegetables exceeds that of purchasing the same items from the local supermarket. Even if the cost of those items is sometimes four times as high or the items are picked under ripe so they travel and store well. It sounds something like this, "YUK. I wouldn't want to shop at a market as it is a peasant activity".

(I cannot speak for other countries here as this is the Australian experience. I understand that places such as Detroit have very limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables regardless so they have further complicating issues.)

The simple fact is that like the household economy, markets aren't considered to be very sexy and as such it lacks appeal for Western society. Change will only occur when forced upon them by outside forces. Few like to challenge the status quo.

We're building our own house which is a very rare thing nowadays, although once quite common eg. post WWII when there were material and labour shortages. This activity is contributing to our own household economy greatly and in under two years of part time labour we are saving decades of work in the outside economy. Yet the majority of comments we have received are a bit scornful and derisive (fortunately not from the inspectors though!).

Unpaid labour doesn't have the social cachet of a big fat salary cheque, but people rarely look at the big picture and ask where it is all going? Even worse, they don't wonder if by their very actions they are making themselves more vulnerable to external shocks.

As a member of generation X, I remember vividly the recession of the early 1990's, 10% unemployment, and interest rates for mortgages hovering around the 18% mark.

Australia is in the grip of a private debt binge which is unprecedented. Perhaps, we all should look at reducing our outgoings and boosting the household economy and actually producing some real goods and not passively spend our time as worker rats and consumers.

Good luck!

4/15/10, 2:29 AM

Yvonne Rowse said...
I took ten years out of my career to raise my children and educated them at home for that time. I think we had a better quality of life for it. Now I am divorced I am looking at how to cut my expenses further so that I can work a four day week. At present I am so busy at work that my household economy is almost non-existent, other than cooking decent meals from scratch. My slowness in getting to a four day week is based on my fear that I will continue to work a fifty or so hour week but only be paid for thirty. I have spoken to a lot of people who have had the same thought.

4/15/10, 2:47 AM

Jason said...
I presume the tone is deliberate, but why the peevishness? Readers who reply without understanding you are in the minority of replies, never mind readers, and it's starting to sound a little hectic.

The ideas in this post would be welcomed with interest in many quarters I know, including Transition Towns -- and yes, I hear you on the idea that UK transition might be more serious than US. I'm just not sure how presenting your case as unwinnable, because people are too stupid to get it, is helping anyone. :)

4/15/10, 3:04 AM

z said...
Done, done and done. We did the figures and its a no brainer. Having run some figures to the other half, demonstrating how for example some friends of ours spent their first €50k of after tax income to get to the office door in the morning (2xcar loans, fuel, clothes, eating out, childcare etc), the pill was made easier to swallow by pointing out how seemingly unhappy they were with the stress and military like regimen they underwent to achieve this numb utopia. I'm not sure about the US, but here in Ireland this idea seems to be gaining more acceptance among my circle at least, most of whom I've well briefed in the thesis of the ecotechnic future et al; there seems to be multiple emotional selling points, one major benefit being avoidance of the almost monthly introduction of some new tax by our semi bankrupt government, mostly consumption based, which can be avoided by going off grid. We are committed to a single cash income and have fairly concrete plans as to how we will relieve ourselves from the cash economy almost completely in time.

4/15/10, 3:15 AM

B said...
Actually, quite a few of us are doing it (google "femivore" - not that I identify with that). I gave up the larger income in our household and we've never looked back. I highly recommend it, but when I tell people I "retired" at 42, most say I'm "lucky" as if it would be impossible for them in whatever their situation is. We're not even breaking even compared to our two income days, but it's still worth it.


4/15/10, 3:15 AM

autonomyacres said...
If anymore evidence is needed, my family is doing exactly this, and better off because of it. I am writing this before going to work, while my wife is home with the kids. Our peers don't understand how we can make it, but we do. We live simply, grow as much food as we can and rely on the libary for our entertainment. We don't have many of the fancy toys most people think are needed to be happy, but I do think we lead fuller lives and have kids more intouch with reality. It is not always easy and we have had to make economic adjustments, but I would not change the way we live.

4/15/10, 3:21 AM

Erik said...
my wife and I found that we had a better standard of living on her bookkeeper’s salary alone, with a thriving full time household economy, than we had earlier on two salaries with only the scraps of a household economy

My wife and I made this same assessment a decade ago. Unfortunately for me, the earning potential of IT vs. human services dictated that I be the one to keep my job, but it has greatly increased our quality of life.

4/15/10, 3:42 AM

Think Out Of The Box said...
I've been reading for well over a year, and again am impressed with the insights offered up... Elizabeth Warren, in her book, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke, discusses the actual numbers. Greer offers the "rest of the story" and the impact on our "real" lifestyle (or lack thereof)!

I sat and talked with a family practice doctor, who had a special interest in nutrition, about food issues & population: he vehemently stated that we could feed 9 billion people. I finally said we probably could, but what then? what happens with the next doubling? a shocked look hit his face. It was like he spent so much time and energy focused on the one point that he never even considered the overall consequences.

It amazes me how very intelligent people, as you have pointed out, have real difficulty in considering the whole picture. And I am very appreciative of a place I can "come" and listen to discussions of a broader perspective.


4/15/10, 4:16 AM

knutty knitter said...
Gone there, done that because I didn't see why I should hand over my kids to someone else to bring up.

Unfortunately, being female, this leaves me open to quite a bit of derision along with the idea that my education will go begging and unused!

Yes, it would be nice to have a few extra dollars but not at the expense of our family. Or the local community for that matter. Someone has to do all those odd chores that no=one else has time for :)

viv in nz

ps. I knit a pretty mean sock!

4/15/10, 4:51 AM

Zin said...
Thanks John,
This post really gets to the heart of the matter. As individuals in this society our attention seems to be focused on all of the outward distractions of the world, while the real work needs to be done within. With this post you have taken that concept and applied it to the family unit.

thanks...wishing you much peace

4/15/10, 5:12 AM

Pops said...
Ya know, it really makes me feel smart when I'm on the same wave as someone like you. Lately I've been blogging about my personal 5 rules for living on the margin of the rich world (formerly 5 rules for PO Prep but I'm trying the soft and fuzzy route).

Number 3 (right after Don't Buy and Don't borrow) is Don't Specialize.
Telecommuting is great for rules 1 and 2 too, because it eliminates a wide variety of stuff from your debit column, from commute expenses (you know, like a car and gas) to clothes, to restaurant meals, to child care. Seriously you can save a ton of money by not having a "Job".

But the biggest habit people have now and the reason they can't live on one income is square footage. When I was born in '57 total mortgage debt was 20% the size of GDP - today it's over 70%!

4/15/10, 5:14 AM

Greg B said...
Greetings from a fellow househusband!

Did 8 years as a stay-at-home Dad while simultaneously being a homeschooling Dad. I usually enjoyed it more than my previous profession of Engineer.

And we did not notice the improved quality of life from very free evenings and weekends. Since the kids and I did the chores during the weekdays, we were able to use the evenings and weekends for leisure instead of scrambling to do laundry and housecleaning and errands.

Now that they have graduated from homeschool my home has become "productive" as a small-business place ( that is generating income doing online retail of garden and digging tools - and we are noticing the decrease in quality of life as more and more chores shift to the weekend.

The book "Your Money or Your Life" gives a decent method for determining if that second income balances the cost of employment. That book allowed my family to become one income for many years.

4/15/10, 5:14 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
"Former" househusband? Do you have a day job now, or have you succeeded at making your writing into a full-time paying career? If the later, congrats! That's a rare accomplishment.

A hint -- if you have any kind of acreage, and you leave the right sorts of things laying around your property, you can get by with calling yourself a "farmer" and avoid the "househusband" stigma.

More to the point -- a major barrier to the single income household now is the entrenched gender-specific attitudes towards housework. A stay-at-home husband (due to involuntary unemployment) with a full-time employed wife is a fairly common arrangement around here, with the evaporation of manufacturing, death of farming, and shrinkage of construction. Many of these bread-winning wives, however, come home to the expectation that they will still cook supper, clean the house, and do the laundry. This expectation is instilled in both the stay-at-home husband and the working wife. Daddy may fix the cars and mow the lawn, but he doesn't pack the kid's lunch for school. This is a more socially conservative area than average, but not by as much as people like to think. I'm not sure what it will take to dislodge this.

Of course, among younger adults, NOBODY, male or female, knows how to cook anymore, so whoever makes the stay-at-home choice will be learning from scratch no matter what their gender.

4/15/10, 5:14 AM

Paul said...
As a former Chicago commuter I would guess that a 30% decrease in rush hour traffic would reduce rush hour fuel consumption by over 50% since the time spent going nowhere would be greatly reduced. It would also save the cost of building even larger roads.

Your right! This is much too good an idea to ever happen.


4/15/10, 5:47 AM

matraia said...
My girlfriend and I are starting to really turn into this path. I've started a serious garden this year and my girlfriend is leaving her cushy job an hour and a half away to work as a freelance writer at home. She also cans, so once the pickling cucumbers come in she'll be selling those at the local farmer's markets. I'll also be installing a clothesline soon and I hope to find a manual clothes washer so we can ditch the energy hog. And we're paying down our debts fast.

Future plans include figuring out how to use beeswax to can instead of the normal lids, figuring out just how to make a doublewide more energy efficient (a fool's errand in the long term?) and looking into raising goats for milk. With luck I'll be able to take a much closer job within a year and get out of the IT gig for good.

4/15/10, 5:53 AM

Isis said...

I'm not convinced that the single paycheck model is a good idea given the current family model (i.e. nuclear family plus easy divorce). Even if your $2000 paycheck costs you more than $2000, it still serves as a kind of insurance for individuals and families. For the individual, it means that, in the event of divorce after 5 or 10 or 20 years of marriage, the former stay-at-home spouse doesn't have to reenter the work force with little to no work experience (and end up subsisting on what is likely to be a poverty wage). And for families, it provides a cushion against a possible job loss of the only breadwinner (it's easier, I would think, to go from a two-paycheck family to a one-paycheck family, than to go from a one-paycheck family to a no-paycheck family). And of course, there's the issue of domestic abuse and the difficulties associated with the abused spouse leaving the marriage when, economically, s/he fully depends on the abuser.

In the extended family context (or at least some versions of it), I think your ideas would work much better. A 10-adult household in which five adults work is much better prepared to handle the job loss of one working adult than is a two-adult household in which only one person works. And as for divorce, well, you'd either have to make divorce much more difficult, or have arrangements where it's understood that the non-working spouse can move back in with relatives (if s/he originally lived with in-laws); the latter could work as a cushion against abuse, too, I would think.

But as long as the nuclear family is the norm, what you're suggesting is a bit too risky for my taste.

4/15/10, 6:11 AM

Ponter said...
Good post. These arguments have been raised by many, and they bear repeating over and over until it sinks in. Interestingly just this week Sharon Astyk did a related post on the extended family. For a fuller discussion on the economics of the two-income family and its discontent, including all the statistics you were hoping to find, see “The Two Income Trap” by Elizabeth Warren.

I have to wonder, though, how many jobs in our so-called service economy are completely related to servicing the dual worker, nuclear family. It’s not as though a bunch of manufacturing jobs would suddenly be available, at least not initially (at some point we will be forced to start making things close to home). How many jobs, such as those you mentioned but even more, would simply disappear? Given that our whole economy is a hall of mirrors, and we probably have created an economy based on each of us taking in someone else’s laundry, what happens when we no longer need someone else to clean our clothes? I have no idea what the answer is to this questions, but I suspect your proposed scenario would play out in a much less neat way than any of us would hope. Still, I totally support your idea. And I'm as skeptical as you that many of us will actually figure it out.

4/15/10, 6:19 AM

Cindy said...
Wonderful post! As a single person who lives alone I find the same confusion when people ask me, “What do you do?, referring to my occupation and I don’t define myself that way. It is nearly impossible to make a new acquaintance and not have this discussion! I have reduced my need to ‘work for money’ by living very frugally, growing my own food, and making do- and find that people just cannot grasp how I get by with working twenty hours a week. They seem to imply that I must be doing something illegal!! I used to be a stay at home mom and was frustrated with the lack of legitimacy assigned to working in the home economy then, as well. I try to never make that mistake of assuming that one who does not leave home to work for money is not working

4/15/10, 6:22 AM

rising-moon said...
Personal Privacy might be another uneconomical luxury, and one that conflicts directly with the notion of a thriving household economy. Living shoulder-to-shoulder with our extended families and clans, after being taught that solitude (in a penthouse condominium, single-family brownstone, or enormous suburban backyard) is an earned right, will take a lot of getting used to.

Have you read the blogger The Last Psychiatrist? He tracks (very broadly speaking) interpersonal relationship models and irresponsible media representations of wealth; he suggests that the dominant issue is narcissism: the conviction that we are, deserve, and can afford, better than we actually are or do.

I would suggest that your collective theses formulate the cause, and sad, inevitable effect.

4/15/10, 6:45 AM

Twilight said...
"We will all, I think, learn a great deal by going where we have to go during the lean and challenging years to come. The hope that we might manage to learn a thing or two in advance of that journey is understandable enough, and the thing has happened now and then in history; still, for reasons already discussed, that hope seems very frail to me just now."
My father was an Engineering professor. He said that one of the hardest parts of the job was that the kids would come through for a couple of years, you would teach them as best as you could and then they would go on. He rarely got to find out if he made a difference. The ones that kept in touch were very few, but it turns out he did make a big difference on them, and maybe a few more.

That's probably the best any of us can hope for in our lives - that we make a positive difference to a few, even though we may never even find out about it. Your role here is of exploring and teaching, and you're doing a good job of that. There was never much chance that you would reach a huge audience, and given the time scales you cannot know what the final impact will be. But you are likely reaching more than you think, and in the chaos to come even a few with their heads on straight might matter a great deal.

We've been doing the one income thing for many years - unfortunately I'm the one stuck commuting. One of the challenges now is developing the home economy skills even though one is not working outside the home. The structure and expectations of modern society fight against this.

4/15/10, 7:25 AM

GreenStrong said...
I can heartily endorse JMG's advice on personal economics based on my own experience, and add a few notes about the quality of life it provides. I work a standard forty hour a week job, and my wife works part time at home as a silversmith and home maker. Although our combined income is just above what would qualify us for food stamps, we eat extremely well on home grown and home cooked food. This morning's breakfast of home baked bread and eggs from the back yard could not have been finer, yet it cost less than a dollar.

My sons, four and six years old, are better educated and better behaved than their peers, and they are learning hard work at an early age. My boys have hands on experience with metalworking, cooking, carpentry, and every aspect of small scale agriculture. Nothing makes me prouder, or more at ease with our future, than when my sons wake up at dawn and ask if there are any chores in the garden they can help with.

Finally, my wife volunteers several hours per week at our older son's school. Based on the impact of this small effort, I can state with certainty that our education system would be far better if this practice were widespread.

4/15/10, 7:34 AM

Edde said...
Hey John Michael,

Good one.

I'm a long time house husband, took care of my mother for 9 years, still a bike mechanic, now officially retired. I'm also a voluntary non-parent, which I bet is as lucrative as house husbanding. Have you done an analysis of not having kids?

The environmental analysis of non-parents and house husbanding is also enlightening. Less stuff, less embodied energy & resources, less waste, etc.

Feminism sure worked out great for me. It opened the door for me to become a house husband. Full equality, eh.

Sure has been a beautiful spring down here in Florida. Hope everybody is enjoying it.


4/15/10, 7:48 AM

smc said...
My husband has been a stay-at-home dad (ha! as if he's staying put or standing still) for the past 5 years. Despite the lack of money in the bank, it's been well worth it for our son's sake. Many of our friends and family don't know what to make of us: as other commenters have mentioned, "job" and "career" are so important in our culture (which IMHO doesn't say anything good about our culture)that it's very confusing to the hoi polloi when a smart, able-bodied person decides to "stay at home". Thanks JMG for your thought-provoking posts--keep em coming.

4/15/10, 7:56 AM

Steph said...
I actually know a number of families in my age range (20s-30s) who are doing this on some level. I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea, though I wonder how you'd factor non-steady employment into this? (IE, freelancing, or a small Etsy store, or a housespouse who creates art that they may sell on a small scale)

I actually think it makes a lot of sense--but since I'm the only one in my household, it's not really an option. I also think that cost of living would have to see some drop in many areas; if the cost of housing alone requires all of one person's salary it's not always possible. (And I'm not talking a giant house here either, I'm talking about an apartment with enough room for those living in it, in a decent neighborhood.)

Also...just one picky note. Good yarn (not the petroleum based acrylic variety) is certainly not cheaper than buying socks or a blanket. But I figure it also counts as my entertainment budget; sock yarn may cost $22, but it also takes me a couple weeks to knit them, and that's a heck of a lot cheaper than going out all those nights.

4/15/10, 8:23 AM

mistah charley, ph.d. said...
JMG, you ask When will people aggressively lobby their congressflacks to get...special Social Security arrangements for families with one income?

This is not necessary. Social Security is already set up to take into account the one-income family (which was normal at the time it was created).


a)It has spousal benefits of 50% of the income of the principal beneficiary. If you are eligible for benefits either on your own work record or as a spouse (this is the category I will fall into), you get the larger of these two. In my case, given the work and pay histories of myself and missus charley, my plan is to file for my own SS check at full retirement age (66 in my case), then switch to the spousal benefit when missus charley (who is a youngster, relatively speaking) is the appropriate age for me to collect on that.

b)It has benefits for the surviving spouse of 100% of the deceased's amount. Of course, if you as a couple were receiving 100% plus 50%, this is still a substantial reduction due to widowhood - but notice, it applies no matter which partner dies.

c>Divorced spouses who were married at least ten years and have not remarried can receive spousal and survivor benefits.

The dilution or destruction of Social Security benefits is one of the most evil domestic agenda items of the MICFiC* - although it can't compete with their worldwide mass murder, of course.

Corporate Media Complex.

4/15/10, 8:31 AM

AK said...
Exactly Pops, the MacMansion is by definition beyond the capabilities of a housespouse. And I agree with others who have mentioned the social onus of being a dependent with no job to define what you are. So I have devised a hybrid solution of having my own business (helping other people organize their overwhelming lives) which gives me enough money for personal spending and my half of food, utilities, fraction of mortgage to appease my desire not to be dependent, but enough time to manage chores in a modest house for two people. I run errands with an old, long-paid-for, no amenities, used Honda wagon kept alive with preventive maintenance. My RDP (Registered Domestic Partner) brings home the bacon to house us, but lives with a higher level of amenities, late model Prius and social services she can afford. This way our hybrid partnership works for both of us, but instead of being part of the want, want, want, dual income people we are working towards reducing her work hours via sustainability and flexibility created by this arrangement.

4/15/10, 8:37 AM

Steve said...
Good points all around. I keep laughing at the "but the internet is so great we can't live without it" posts, yet I know that I have my own blind spots.

Anyhow, I wanted to relate that my experience with the local Transition group doesn't reflect your comments. They've been actively promoting the household economy and a re-evaluation of working for money for a couple of years now. Also, they're putting on all kinds of revitalize-the-home-economy classes, from gardening to knitting to food preservation. That said, I don't doubt that it's different elsewhere.

Also, I wanted to give an alternative perspective to the "Young People Don't Do This Stuff" perspective that I've noticed in the comments. All of my friends (25-35) know how to cook from scratch, and most of us are better cooks than our parents or grandparents. By and large it's true that young adults are geared toward the money economy and don't have roots in home economics, but there are also plenty of us who are learning and teaching people about it.

p.s. I like your plan for the formal economy, and I'm wondering when to expect the non-household informal economy to pick up speed in the US. I've seen some weak signs around here, but what's happening around the country?

4/15/10, 8:42 AM

Ariel55 said...
Dear John,

Please take heart and hold steady; there are many who are on your wavelength and are greatly edified by "gathering" with your wonderful analyses week by week while we have access to you. And then, we'll have your books. Best regards, and best wishes to all.

4/15/10, 8:51 AM

anagnosto said...
You will not get help from the governments in this line of thinking. They could even think you are subversive. Governments do not get taxes from household economy as they do from jobs!

4/15/10, 9:02 AM

wahkiacusw said...
The things you say are true, and they're even more true for larger intentional families. Unfortunately, the current cultural conditioning is for people to isolate themselves to the greatest degree possible using money to meet their needs instead of a network of relationships.

Creating a significant degree of sustainability requires gardens and animals that can convert things we don't want to eat (grass, bugs, acorns, etc.) into things we do want to eat and wear. Unfortunately, everything you own, owns you in turn, and while sustainable systems are liberating, they can also make one feel trapped.

The solution that works for us is the small, intentional community. It's a form that allows us to benefit from the economies of scale, the division of labor and the accumulation of capital without surrendering ourselves to the corporate world.

Perhaps the current emphasis on nuclear families will soon seem as much an anomaly as the two-car garage.

-- Walt

4/15/10, 9:18 AM

Dethe Elza said...
We have lived this way for pretty much our entire marriage. Not only for economic reasons, but we didn't see any reason to pay someone else to raise our children for us. While I would have preferred to stay at home, I was the one most likely to earn enough to support the family, so my wife has been home. She has had part-time jobs from time to time mainly to get out of the house, and also finds time to write and publish poetry and is now back in school working on her Ph.D.

We've tried to manage things so she can spend some part of each day keeping the house running and getting the kids to school, and I help out however I can. Sometimes the pressure from being the sole currency earner gets to me, just like sometimes she can feel isolated without a lot of other adults around, but we try to acknowledge these problems and work to solve them.

On the other hand, we are not average. Both highly educated, no TV, mostly vegetarian, and I walk or take the bus to work instead of having a second car. These are tradeoffs I'm seeing more and more among my circle of acquaintances, but I don't think they've caught on in the mainstream yet.

4/15/10, 9:28 AM

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...
I agree in general with you, John. In fact, I knew what you were going to suggest before you even actually said the words. We did the one income bit back in the 1990s, when we birthed our twins who had an older three year old brother. But then again we were also in a house we had just bought for only $30,000 on an FHA mortgage, and I had a fairly decent teaching position where I need to walk just five blocks to work, so those costs weren't to high. And after the twins got a little older so my wife wasn't breast feeding them anymore, she watched over to other kids as well for a friend of ours, which brought in a few extra dollars each day and provided a needed service to another. When my wife did back to being active again outside the house, it was back to school and get set for an entirely new profession (ministry as a pastor), which is entirely again different that typical 8 hour-a-day jobs.

Single-income households will work better at particular stages in households, such as with child-bearing years and maybe pre-retirement, such as after children are long gone and out of college. The in-between period - for instance, middle to senior high school, or the college years - are definitely tougher times to do this, as the income needs are generally higher at that time. For instance, with college, you would think that having a low income will work to your advantage for financial aid, and generally it does, but that doesn't account for the relative shift these days, with tight state budgets, to expect to fill the gap with scholarships. Also the emphasis on "family contribution" is definitely in the formulas for determining eligibility for educational aid. The end result, I fear, for families in this situation is lots and lots of loans (both student and parent), which just shifts the pain to later and doesn't help the situation.

The other kickers that mess up the general ability for single income households are house values, as someone else has noted, geography (as related to differences in housing values), and insurance. Houses are generally much more expensive these days, as are expected/needed insurance, with some areas definitely more expensive than others, which will stretch single household incomes very thin. Compared to ten years ago, let alone twenty or thirty years or more, it is higher relative costs of housing and insurance that will be challenging. To successfully manage the single-income route, one will likely also need to radically alter, as in significantly lower, their expectations for housing and insurance. While not sub-standard housing, it will likely be significantly below the norm, and more families likely opt to go without insurance or be under-insured.

But in general I agree with you that a return to more single-income households is both desirable, and likely necessary, as the number of jobs continue to shrink and we adjust to a much smaller economy. Being proactive in adjusting one's lifestyle is definitely better than the alternative of being forced into this situation while already in a too-expensive house or area.

4/15/10, 9:40 AM

MawKernewek said...
I can see that moving out of the money economy can be socially isolating, since the collapse of meaningful community life in large parts of the industrialised world.

It's a chicken and egg thing though since the concentration on the money economy is a large part of what led to the atrophy of community life.

About cooking, personally I have taken the trouble to learn how to cook a few dishes but for most meals I either use the college canteen or else use semi-prepared food.

I'm fully aware that I would save money if I cooked every meal from scratch provided I used appropriate ingredients.

It might seem expensive and time consuming to cook from scratch if you're doing it on an occasional one-off basis, but doing it day in day out has gains in efficiency, both in the use of money and time.

If you need a small amount of a certain ingredient in a recipe for instance, even for a non-perishable good chances are that a few months without using it it ends up at the back of the cupboard forgotten and you end up buying another one.

The management of a food cupboard is something else that I think has atrophied as people have grown more affluent. Perhaps it is because the range of foods available has grown people don't seem to keep track of it any more. Or just that people are affluent enough that food waste doesn't seem to be a massive issue for them anymore.

4/15/10, 10:04 AM

jagged ben said...
"When will Transition Town programs, let’s say, match up the experienced elderly with novice househusbands and housewives who want to learn how to cook, sew, can, garden, and knit?" started happening a while ago. Transition is doing this more than anyone else. Google "re-skilling" and is the first result, which is not surprising since Rob Hopkins pretty much coined the term with regard to peak oil. I feel that you wouldn't have written the sentence above if you were keeping up with developments in the Transition movement.

BTW, it's not easy...finding people who can sew, can, or knit, and who have time to teach others. (Cooking and gardening is a little easier). I'm involved in two groups working to organize this kind of education and so far it's a bit of a slog just finding people with the skills. Such is the state of our present society. But we just started. We still need more people in the general public to read this blog and get on board. ;-)

4/15/10, 10:13 AM

John said...
So often when I read your posts I get the odd feeling that you are writing my life story. When I was first married, back in the early bronze age, my wife and I had a talk about work and money that mirrored the first few paragraphs of your essay. The result of this was that we decided we would budget such that we could live off one income (mine). If my wife was working all of her salary would be saved to make the down payment for our first house or the land we now live on. The rest of the time she would be working in the household economy.

This has given us an enormous amount of flexibiliy. One of your posters writes "there is potentially some valuable additional resilience offered by two incomes..". I beg to differ. Most of the people I know who have two incomes quickly ramp up their consumption to take up the two incomes (and sometimes more). When either of them loses a job, they are immediately in crisis mode. When I went through a stint of unemployment a few years ago, the spouse immediately started a housecleaning business to bring in some income while I painted the house, cut firewood and did other productive things. This gave me a feeling of being useful and provided some of the things we needed without the usual cash outlay. That's resiliency!

Another comment I'd make is that in my experience kids raised in a household with at least one parent present are happier, better balanced, and have a closer relationship with their parents than those shipped off to day care. I know in today's world there are some parents who have no option but to use day care, but the household economy pays huge dividends to the children lucky enough to be raised in it.

Finally, the household economy prizes generalists - you need to be able to do a lot of things reasonably well. Whereas the corporate world tends to demand specialization - people who know everything about something and nothing about anything else. Perhaps this is the source of the frustration you express at people not getting the big picture, systems view, of the subjects of your posts. They are trained in their corporate work environments not to.

Looking forward to next Thursday.

4/15/10, 10:15 AM

Me said...
Here are two interesting scenarios for the future that I am thinking about.

Scenario 1: the rise in poverty and prices encourages people to start doing their own stuff again, fire the contractors and labor, going outside, actually doing useful work with their hands.

Scenario 2: the rise in poverty and prices encourages people to revert to speculation and finance, while others stuck in their homes, just retreating inwards to the computer, a virtual world while they allow the physical world to continue falling apart. This goes on for a while, then crumbles, reverting us to Scenario 1.

Allow me to flesh out Scenario 2, hypothetically speaking.

Assume for a moment that our national wealth evaporates and energy gets much more expensive. Assume government then subsidizes the internet, TV, and the agribusinesses. Travel goes away, especially intercontinental travel. Demand for all the equipment and infrastructure needed by the travel industry shrivels up . Demand for mass produced plastic goods from China shrivels up. The average person becomes ever more dependent on government largesse. Financiers in concert with the government capture ever greater shares of the national wealth via debt, which people need because their incomes cannot keep up with the rising cost of living, and via clubby speculative activities amongst themselves.

Assume we accomplish the above through a controlled demolition. We know the economy cannot support this level of economic activity, so when it all starts falling to pieces, we allow the process to take place, except for the nodes needed above, which are bailed out. Alternatively, we could allow the whole system to fail, after which the government or its private proxies buy up the pieces for cheap out of the bankruptcy court.

Oil consumption goes way down because of the lack of demand for some or all of the products and services above.
Scenario 2 would force all the deflation into cars, travel, discretionary consumer products, and oil demand from those uses.
This alleviates the energy problem for a time.

People just stay indoors on Facebook and Twitter all day. The outside world gets less and less relevant to the average Joe. The vast increase in available oil goes towards the military to impose control domestically and internationally, towards the agribusinesses to run their industrial food factories, and towards maintenance of the infrastructure required to keep this simplified system going. These and telecommuting lower level government workers are the primary job centers. Wages fall due to the oversupply of available labor relative to demand. Populations fall.

We end up getting all of our food from centralized agribusinesses. Our food gets less and less nutritive as genetic modifications boost the size of our food but not its nutrients. Food choice shrinks as people increasingly can only afford the subsidized staple crops - corn, soybeans, and the like.

One big factor here is how tightly state and corporate powers merge. If Monsanto is able to get the government to enforce a rule that US plebians cannot get any seeds except from Monsanto, there will be no large scale move to the home economy, just dependence on food from Monsanto. A form of new age slavery emerges.

Corporations want money and governments want control. The more the better.

Scenario 1 obviates the goals of corporations and governments. Scenario 2 allows corporations and government to hang on for longer. Of course, corporations and government will be confined to the energy and wealth realities the system imposes on them ... but they will do whatever they can to hang on, that much seems for sure.

Just something to think about...

4/15/10, 10:26 AM

pgrass101 said...
Our family of 4 functions on one income and we seem more financially stable than our friends with two incomes. We realized with the birth of our first child that we would spend one income supporting things (daycare, food preparation etc…) that would enable us to both work, so my wife decided to stay home and for me to continue to work. This has enabled us to have a small vegetable garden and do a lot of work on our century old house.

I often wonder why our friends have such a hard time realizing that with one of us staying home we have actually increased our real income (even though our monetary income is less) by making things ourselves and not having to pay for as many services. We have more time to spend with our children, develop and learn skills that further help us to become more independent from the global economy.

There are several things that I will miss when we enter into the new high cost petroleum world, but if I have to choose between the internet and toilet paper I will choose toilet paper every time. I think that most things we have will still exist in some form, we will still have air travel, internet, bottled water etc…, but it will be for the super rich our government use only.

4/15/10, 10:32 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
(Part 1) Oh, what a huge topic you have taken on this time! It’s a topic I have done a lot of thinking about over the years. Let me first say, speaking as a feminist, that I agree with you both in the economics of single-earner households as you state them, and in the “sanity advantages” of not being in the “efficient” workforce of today. As you stated it, it is the most intelligent response to the current employment and cultural situation we have. But that situation, I think, is only about 10 years old, particularly in the cost/benefit equation of wages vs. housecare costs. Also, in the stress equation of pressured jobs for lower pay.

But my first objection is that for many families the situation isn’t as you stated: some can’t afford childcare, and so leave the kids with neighbors or at the free after-school programs; some have too much debt to be able to switch to one-income (which is another issue, I know) – and for all families, while it is true that knitting-one’s-own (or sewing) gives you much finer quality, it is not true that it’s cheaper! I have been a home sewer, crocheter, etc for years, and I have to say that what happens is you spend the same amount of money and get better quality. (And the Eugene, OR “Black Sheep Gathering” is to die for! ;-}) For many struggling families, that’s not an option; they buy cheap imported goods because that’s what they can afford (and yes, I agree – ahead of time – that good quality is cheaper in the long run – but you have to have the cash up front). And also, I have found, there are large numbers of people who do not find handwork interesting or enjoyable – to them it is drudgery… to be taken on only as a last resort.

Take a significant amount of the workforce out of paid employment, and two things happen: first, unemployment rates go down, and second, competition among employers for the remaining workers tends to drive wages up.

The fact is that this has already happened to a great extent – the US 10% unemployment that is cited does not take the “discouraged workers” into account – I have read that the real unemployment numbers (US employable population vs. number employed) are closer to 46%! So possibly your concept would be to make that situation permanent… but I don’t think there would be much shift in the actual numbers for maybe a generation.

The other objection – well, not objection so much as “how do we get there?” – is the social issue. As you pointed out, there is a stigma attached to household work (though I am very glad to say that the younger generation seems to be getting wise to this and are thumbing their nose to pure career-identity). I have encountered the depression of both men and women who – willingly or out of necessity – took on the house, and it doesn’t take long before they have a very low view of themselves. You mention you are a “former house husband” – so, something caused you to switch out of that. I don’t want details (I won’t get them, I’m sure ;-}) but I wonder that part of our culture pushes people to consider householding as a temporary option; a way to get through a certain tough patch, or to raise kids (so many of my women friends couldn’t wait to get back to work!) Possibly it is the isolation that happens in this culture; instead of a thriving town of householders, there is just you and the kids, or you and the wash… and Judge Judy on tv (gawdhelpus). Also, you didn’t mention the very, very human nature of association leading to attraction – if indeed men choose to be househusbands, it would then be working at both the community and workplace level – the person you hang out with suddenly becomes more attractive than the mate who you see at dinner! That is such a common situation, and it does affect your systems equation in a big way!

4/15/10, 10:55 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
(Part 2) And (as others have mentioned) I wonder whether two career-minded individuals (say, two scientists or two teachers) would have to simply avoid marriage, because neither one is that interested in giving up their career? (And remember, many people meet their spouses in the college or workplace; they are in similar fields).

And I will speak from personal experience now: again, I don’t fit the group you were targeting, having recently divorced, and suddenly having no choice about who was going to have the paying job! The divorce rate in this country should make every householder (whether male or female) think twice about letting go of career skills – because finding work after being off for longer than 6 months has been demonstrated to be much, much harder! That is an unavoidable piece of the puzzle, but you didn’t mention that.

However, I did the numbers as you outlined them, and decided that in my situation the cost of commuting, auto maintenance, lunches out, etc. were in fact eating up much of the salary! I just quit a publishing company, and adjusted to part time work from home; it clearly is better to live frugally and sanely… and yes, the savings from cooking from scratch is unbelievable!

Yet I am experiencing an odd mental dichotomy: some part of me is saying my time is “too valuable” (I was a tech writer, and still do some freelance), and is still trying to insist that the money I could make just writing, and then hiring someone to do the physical work, pencils out better… it is only the psychological savings that has swayed me – the workplace of today (in any field, as far as I can tell!) has become insanely pressured, and no amount of money would pay for that stress… and wages are dropping, so the equation is even more clear.

I appreciate your clear description of various dilemmas, and the opportunity to think them through and reply. One thought that this and your last posts have brought to my mind is a series of small repair shops springing up in small towns, with a push toward buying things that can be repaired… if I knew there was a shoe repairperson around, I’d buy the better shoes! If I knew there was a small appliance repair shop, I’d shop around for older, repair-able items. So this could be a place where small business has a niche – create repairable goods and advertise them as such.

4/15/10, 10:57 AM

Pat said...
I do enjoy and learn from these essays so offer my thanks.

DH and I did this home economy in the 70's living on a farm. We cash cropped, grew and preserved our own food. I sewed and knitted and also did the volunteering for the family unit. We both provided the enrichment for our children's education process and knew where they were at all times since they needed a ride to all activities.

However, I missed the challenge of making a difference in society beyond the family unit. I went back to work part-time and back to school to complete my degree to my delight.
I was able with time and more experience to change legislation that made a difference.
What I submit that you are missing is that a well rounded individual develops the confidence to challenge the status quo where needed using extensive life experience that the home economy unit simply does not provide.

In addition, now in our mid 60's, retired to another farm, we are enjoying the defined benefit pension that DH earned. Many employees are not able to access such a pension and, frequently, secure jobs are rare even for one income.

Both our children and their spouses have undergone periods of unexpected unemployment so feel that they need two incomes to protect themselves.

One additional comment is that DH will probably not survive the next year due to health issues and the farm/home economy unit under which we both operate at present is simply not sustainable by one individual.
I wonder what is viable as an alternative?

4/15/10, 11:23 AM

mary said...
As I read through the article and comments I see one thing that is missing in the discussion of the one worker household. I went to work because being at home with small children is lonely. I looked around my neighborhood and one by one, my women friends were returning to work, suddenly there was no one to talk to during the day! I looked out my window and saw empty houses-children in school and parents at work.
I think that we are very social animals and that the urban and suburban housing stock that we have separates us so much that we do not get to feel part of a community. "Having a job" gives us someone to talk to.

4/15/10, 11:36 AM

Stefan said...
Two thoughts:

1. Just because one drops out of full-time paid employment doesn't preclude the possibility of doing anything at all for money. There are opportunities for freelancers, consultants, contract workers, temps, etc. Even a lot of those stereotypical stay-at-home housewives would take in laundry or do some sewing work or sell eggs or baby sit or whatever, just to earn a little bit of their "own" money.

2. The main reason why families need at least one parent working in full-time paid employment is to get health insurance cover. That is a powerful, overwhelming driving force. Breaking the employment - health insurance link would do much to "rationalize" our economy. Unfortunately, that wasn't even on the table during the recent health care finance deliberations, and it is thus unlikely to be revisited any time soon.

4/15/10, 11:37 AM

FernWise said...
Blessings, y'all!

The general blindness to having to choose what to spend existing energy on is one of the many artifacts of the age of [temporarily] unlimited energy. It is reinforced by the credit-culture that we've been living in for the past 4 or 5 decades. No one is used to living on their real energy or cash income any more, whether they are human beings or corporate beings.

Now, about the household economy part - I'd like to put in a word for a hybrid household economy and/or other variations.

In our case, we have a home based consulting business and also sell business-aimed programming tools. My husband does the high-tech parts (not that they have anything to do with his PhD in Electrical Engineering, most of it is self-taught stuff), I handle sales booths, phones, mail, some of the bookkeeping, some of the advertizing, etc. Fundamentally we own the store we work in, and live above it.

While I'm on call for the business all the time, my usual work load is 2 hours a day ... but the wireless phone comes out with me as I work the garden, make the bread, hang the laundry, or in today's big project, spend 8 hours smoking a brisket.

My husband's 'commute' is walking into the garage/lab. Our son, who is in college, does commute to that, and does the shopping on the way home.

It works for us.

That said ...

The childcare costs part of the equation. while they can be terribly expensive when a family has multiple young children, is less of an expense once children are in school full time (infant care is the REAL killer expense, for that matter). If parents are in jobs they love in a field they love and want to advance in, expensive child care can be a temporary high cost that they choose to invest in.

Frondly, Fern

4/15/10, 11:37 AM

William said...
Lately, I have really appreciated your columns for addressing primarily actions that individuals can take. I am tired of gradiose sustainability conferences and plans that require substantial changes in the existing economic system.

For example, here in Iowa, utilities have gamed the utilities regulations to prevent a city from starting a municipal power company that could build a wind farm. Well, bon voyage to those who want to fight that; I wish them well.

But I'm not going to wait that long. I am learning to garden, to raise organic chickens and organic grassfed cattle, and fruits and vegetables, and I am reducing my transportation, and I am serving on the boards of two local food organizations-a co-op for groceries and a farmers market. And I intend to find the money to install renewable energy (wind or solar or both) for my already energy efficient home. I am a stay-home husband, though technically "retired."

I think that low profile actions that we take individually will make a more robust economy as we slip-slide down the back side of Hubbert's peak. BTW, did you notice the recent quiet acknowledgement by DoD and DoE that serious petroleum shortages are expected by 2015?

4/15/10, 12:51 PM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
A most interesting post and the parts about thinking in terms of whole systems are well taken. And thanks for sending me to reread "the Waking," which I hadn't thought about in awhile. Very apt.

My family has always had a thriving domestic economy, with the benefits of more time, good home-cooked food and well-brought-up children others have mentioned. My husband has always had the full time job. I staved off some of the stuck-at-home isolation some posters have mentioned by working part time and volunteering. My jobs have always been local with little required in the way of commuting/clothes/extra expenses.

By living frugally we have managed to avoid much of the indebtedness and economic distress that so many are enduring these days. Of course we haven't been on any extended vacations lately, either. Modesty rules.

My husband would love to work part time as well, but there's that pesky insurance problem.

However, I do realize that our strong marriage has made this choice possible. I don't think I now could get a full time job that would be enough to support me or anyone else. I did go through a few years when people would ask me when I was going to "do something" with my education, and sometimes wished I had a real profession to call my own and give me a socially viable identity. But, given the choice between home economy and daily incarceration in a cubicle performing a specialized function, home wins, hands down.

I also think that the breadwinner must value the other partner's work as being a real contribution. Otherwise, since power tends to flow to him (or her) as has the mostest money, problems can ensue: the "you stay home and cook, therefore I guess you're my servant" meme being the most common, followed by "what is it that you do all day while I'm out working hard?"

Too much cannot be said for the value of healthy relationships, when, or especially when living somewhat counter to prevailing social norms--though less counter in the future?

4/15/10, 1:34 PM

Ariel55 said...
Dear JMG,

Your "Report" has helped to preserve my sanity all winter, and now, I, the homemaker, have just planted spaghetti-squash and peas on our first Spring day here in Utah. You have made a big difference in my life, and I thank you for so doing!

4/15/10, 2:45 PM

PioneerPreppy said...
The one income household was killed by feminism. Women today are constantly told it was some horror time and any man who stays home is treated as less than a man and will be eventually dumped by the woman who controls the money as a "kitchen Bish".

The government would never allow for roughly half the tax payers to return to the home which is why they are so quick to give any entitlement and/or bias to women to continue working.

However since 90% of women entering the job market will only seek service or management type positions we see what we have today with a recession hitting 80%+ men and mostly all in the production fields.... To begin with.

Now the real test of time begins. The entitlements and replacing the security of a husband and a household with marrying the "STATE" cannot be maintained with only a service economy.

The door to this mess was opened by cheap energy and the pendulum will swing back when cheap energy goes away.

Personally I can't wait.

4/15/10, 2:59 PM

Jennie said...
Preach it! My husband stays home with our son and I work a 40hr job outside the house. He's pretty good at laundry and house cleaning, but I still handle a lot of the dinner cooking and sewing and gardening.
We only have 1 car, and we don't have a lot of the luxeries others consider 'musts'. I think we're happier for it though.

4/15/10, 3:01 PM

plain.ape said...
"Congressflacks"? That's a new one on me.

Anyway, apropos of nothing in particular that you mentioned today, Mr. Greer, I'd like to share a rather amusing story I once heard, and that I'm always reminded of every time someone compares humans and machines on this blog or anywhere else. I'm afraid I can't source it; I know I heard it from a science fiction author, in a book of his explaining modern science to wannabe sci-fi writers or fans, but damned if I remember who. Maybe Charlie Stross.

Our anonymous science fiction author was contemplating the wonders of nanotechnology, and how soon we'd be able to develop artificial catabolic enzymes. He did some calculations, and the power that could be obtained from enough of these babies astounded him! And they'd likely be able to catabolize reactions involving any of a huge number of organic compounds - why, they could even be fueled with ordinary grass! And the waste products wouldn't be the nasty, toxic gasses produced by internal combustion engines. In fact, the wastes could probably be used as a garden mulch, or even a fertilizer! Enthused at the possibilities of his revolutionary new environmentally friendly personal transporter, he went to show his calculations to a friend. This wise friend looked at his notes and said: "You know what you've done, don't you? You've just invented the horse."

As the Kids these days would say, I LOL'd.

4/15/10, 3:17 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Yes, I thought this one would get a lot of responses! First of all, to everyone who posted to say they're making a single income work, thank you for rising to the challenge! I hoped my comments would call up a response of that kind, and you didn't disappoint me -- in fact, it's very good to hear that there are so many readers of this blog who've already made the shift.

Given that there are already 64 comments (!), I'm not going to be able to respond to everyone directly -- among other things, I have another episode of Star's Reach to finish. A few comments, though:

Dltrammel, it used to be fairly common for unmarried people who were middle-aged or older to pair up with somebody else in the same situation. (Some of those were gay couples, of course, but by no means all.) It also used to be common for unmarried aunts and the like to find a home with a married-with-kids sibling or cousin.

Neon, according to Hindu calculations, the Kali Yuga still has many centuries to run, so don't get your hopes up.

Rhisiart, yes, Stuart's nonresponse was one of the things I had in mind when I was writing this.

Llewellyn, good question. I'll be discussing the Singularity mythology in a future post -- it'll be a while, as I'm waiting for a particular event before starting that sequence of discussions.

Jason, the tone is quite deliberate. There are few better ways to get somebody to think about doing something than to suggest that they aren't bright enough to do so.

Bev, I'm afraid the term "femivore" is just a bit too cannibalistic for me!

Bill, yes, I'm writing more or less full time these days, and Sara has a part time job from home; once we get the last of our debts cleared away, we'll revisit that.

Isis, there's a reason why people used to choose prospective spouses for their reliability and economic prospects, rather than romantic love. Mind you, these days being employed in the money economy is no guarantee against ending up unemployed with no prospects, but that's another matter.

Edde, not yet. It's a topic to consider.

Steph, can you buy socks or an afghan of the same quality as one you can knit for less than the yarn? Of course you can get cheap sweatshopped garbage for less, but I did specifically raise the quality issue.

Mistah Charley, thanks for the info! I was unaware of that.

Steve, this is good to hear. I was hoping that some Transition Towners would object to that comment!

4/15/10, 3:42 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Wahkiacusw, if that works for you, great! It's not for everybody, of course, but it certainly has huge advantages.

Jagged, good. Have you considered going to local seniors centers and retirement homes, and seeing if anyone there is willing to teach sewing, canning, etc.? That's where the people who grew up doing that sort of thing are most likely to be found these days.

Me, both your scenarios are already happening, and both will continue to happen. Some people will choose the one, and some the other. I don't think there's any question which choice leads to survival, but it's still a decision people will make for themselves.

Pat, have you considered finding a congenial younger couple who are interested in living on a farm, with you in place as resident adoptive grandmother?

Fern and Stefan, very true! My wife and I both work from home, so I can certainly agree that it's a good approach -- and there's a very real extent to which, in a failing economy, waiting for somebody else to give you a job is far less viable than creating a job for yourself. I may do a post on this in the not too distant future.

Ariel, excellent! Our spring comes earlier here in the Appalachians; we've got radishes and onions already coming up, and peas planted as well.

Preppy, that's a massive oversimplification of a very complex process, you know.

4/15/10, 3:54 PM

John Michael Greer said...
By the way, I should probably mention that I got a comment from an internet fan who -- you guessed it -- ignored the entire issue of systems costs, ignored the issue of economics, treated the cost of electricity as the only thing that had to be taken into account, and insisted that an alternative internet would be technically feasible and desirable in a post-peak future.

Sigh. I suppose it was inevitable.

Mind you, I deleted the comment, and will delete any other comment that does the same thing. When the entire post under discussion is about not ignoring systems costs, a comment that once again ignores systems costs isn't merely delusional, it's rude.

On the bright side, Sharon Astyk has posted a very thoughtful response to my post, and added some useful points about systems costs. Definitely worth a read -- though Sharon almost always is, IMO.

4/15/10, 4:01 PM

MawKernewek said...
Historically what came first?

The two income household, the collapse of the household economy, or the erosion of community life?

Community life is key. Taking an example. In the villages in mid-Cornwall (St. Dennis and Nanpean) when my grandparents were in their youth and even when my father was a boy there were literally dozens of businesses in each village. Now there are only a few and most people will travel to larger towns (or edge of town shopping establishments) for most services, goods and employment.

There is an audio tour of St. Dennis in the 1960s the first two parts of which are available to stream from the BBC Cornwall website.

Search "BBC - Historic St. Dennis".

I think there needs to be a balance between generalism and specialism. Perhaps in a collection of a few hundred people in a village, there will be some who enjoy making jams and preserves and become talented in doing so, some who prefer to bake bread, some who have a plot of land on which they grow vegetables, someone else who opens a repair shop in their garage.

The idea that the individual household must each do all of the above is perhaps an idea which is shaped by late 20th century Western (and especially American) individualism rather than any broader principles.

The erosion of community life actually contributes to the death of the household economy.

Why bother making a good saffron cake if there's no community organisation to show it off to at a "tea treat"?

The "Old Cornwall Society" is an 90 year old institution in Cornwall which exists for the purpose of being cultural conservers. It has published a journal since 1925. That's effectively 150 years of people's memories, thinking of someone who was in their 70s in the 1920s.

If I manage to live in Cornwall full-time after I finish my PhD - I will become involved with this organisation. It could do with some younger members, particularly ones who see the relevance of its work to the future.

4/15/10, 4:44 PM

PioneerPreppy said...
JMG Said

Preppy, that's a massive oversimplification of a very complex process, you know.

Yes it is :)

I could have written volumes but thought keeping it simple was best.

That and I had to get a rabbit out of my cauliflower.

Ultimately it is the system cost which will bring nature back into balance.

Great blog Cheers!

4/15/10, 5:29 PM

Twilight said...
For what it's worth I went over to Stuart's Early Wanting to read the response to last week's post. I found it snide and simplistic, based solely on one variable (hypothetical solar energy conversion efficiencies), and it ignored your main point. Combine that with the Kurzweil admiration in the comments section and it reads to me like simple technology as religion. It's probably not possible to reconcile that with the kinds of points you are making. I think I can shorten my bookmark list by one now.

4/15/10, 5:45 PM

Cash Gorman said...
I've taken the Luddite approach, I work from home, and have for the last 15 years, though not at a loom in the front room like the Luddites did ;~)

It allowed us to downsize to one car and cut way back on my clothing needs, but it has not always been easy working at home and raising children.

A point that needs to be raised though, the double income numbers HAVE to be crunched for each family, in some cases it is the extra $100.00 a week from the second income that keeps the ship above water at some income levels. That coupled with insecurity of employment is what makes the difference between getting by or living on the street.....

In my own part of the worlds I've seen this played out many times as one breadwinner lost their job and became the caregiver while the one with the remaining job became the bread winner.

4/15/10, 7:30 PM

Wendy said...
I gave up my outside-of-the-house employment twelve years ago and stayed home to raise my children. I work, part-time, from home (on the Internet to a great degree, which is why I 'hope' that the Internet will continue to function post-collapse :), but being home means I have the flexibility to do things like mend socks, hang-out my laundry, bake bread, cook meals, work on food preservation, have a garden, and heat solely with wood (because I'm home all day to feed the fire and don't have to worry about the fire going out while I'm at work and the pipes freezing).

Our goal now is to find a way for my husband to work from home or in the informal economy and make (just) enough to pay the few bills we have ;).

I hope that more people will realize just what you're saying here. It does seem unlikely that a smaller salary would result in a larger disposable income, but I don't think most people understand the true costs of having a job.

4/15/10, 7:34 PM

Steve Grimmer said...
When we moved to Canada from the US five years ago for my new job, my wife decided to stay at home with the three kids. We have found all the arguments you present to be accurate, and are happy to report that the government of Canada agrees as well. The tax claim I make for my wife as a dependent is $10,800 minus her salary. Add to that the Universal Child Care Benefit, plus the fact that we don't have to worry about whose job provides health insurance, and it absolutely makes sense for one person to stay home.

4/15/10, 7:41 PM

Noni Mausa said...
And then there are people who are perfectly aware of the "system" and are determined to take the frosting and leave the cake. Converse to them are the people who see the system and want to live by it, but know about the first sort of people.

So, the spouse who gets her husband through school and established in his career, and then winds up divorced with no work history or connections. The worker who works 20 years with a pension as the carrot on the stick, only to find one day the business sold off to someone else and the pension reduced or gone. Or, for every sensible family leaving someone home for the household economy, there will be some who both go to work, and therefore reset the "cost of living." (The excellent video "The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class", Elizabeth Warren again, discusses how women's rush to the workplace had just this effect.)

Everyone seeks that edge, that metaphorical cold front or shoreline where there is a difference in rules or two contrasting environments where the difference can be exploited for increased returns. Or they create, or move, that edge, often dishonourably.

Human participation in "the system", whatever it is, must recognize and ruthlessly deal with free riders and oath-breakers. It must deal with the imbalance of power between the reasonable and responsible, versus the greedy and shameless.


4/15/10, 8:39 PM

Red Neck Girl said...
JMG, I've posted to you before about opening a boarding stable and you were . . . skeptical. I'm just about ready with the grant proposal, there's still a few things to do yet but I hope to take the leap with grant money in hand this summer. (This is in your old stomping grounds.)

What will I do on my stable when the ship of state starts taking on water? I intend to have a good line of working Quarter horses and stock dogs to train and sell. And when I'm not training either one I'll be working in a big garden, tending fruit and nut trees as well as multiple vine fruits, more than we can personally consume in a year, (trade goods).

I have no close family I have any interest in inviting to come live with me but I do have a couple of girls in mind to be my heirs, both showing promise in horsemanship. I think well of both of them.

When the stable is built even when I've only a few boarders I'll still have an indoor area to train year round, an important consideration since I'm past the half century mark.

The style of building for the stable and my personal dwelling is ancient needing little extra maintenance for generations, being easy to maintain even temperatures naturally year round.

I look forward to stepping out the back door and walking a hundred yards to 'my job.' I won't be standing still on improving the soil on the property either.

Most likely, with at least four women living there we'll all pitch in on the household economy. I can knit, crochet, sew and cook, so can my best friend but we'll have to teach the girls! Call us the Amazon Ranch but we wouldn't turn down a good man if we could find one! When the girls start having boys come to the house on dates, me and or my best friend will be the grandma equivalent of 'I'll still be up until you get home, still cleaning this here gun.' Most likely a 12 gauge and you can't get too much more basic than that! ;D

4/15/10, 10:19 PM

SophieGale said...
The offshoot of "the home economy" was the "volunteer service economy." Women started going buggy when they were isolated in suburban cul-du-sacs. In an intact community "stay-at-home Moms" volunteered at schools, churches, museums, and libraries, visited the sick, collected food and clothes for the needy, served on non-profit boards, supported the arts... Again, because it was unpaid, and it was women's work, it wasn't didn't figure into the "economy."

As an aside, the Dept of Veteran Affairs now has a Medical Foster Home program: "The MFH Coordinator finds a caregiver in the community who is willing to take a Veteran into their home and provide 24-hour supervision as well as needed personal assistance. The Veteran pays the caregiver approximately $1200 to $3000 per month depending upon the care needs and situation. VA provides comprehensive primary care through the interdisciplinary home care team. The expectation is that this is a long-term commitment, where the Veteran may live for a few years, often for the remainder of his or her life."

This could be another aspect of "the home economy."

4/15/10, 11:50 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi everyone!

It's lovely to see so many people challenging the status quo, which is no simple thing. The question "so, what do you do?" is a powerful social tool in which to establish the pecking order.

It was also great to see so many people speaking about their own experiences and situations, although everyone tends to normalise their own circumstances regardless.

We'll eventually come full circle back to where we started before the Industrial Age (unless we totally destroy the environment in the process), although there will almost certainly be far less of us by then.

The English legal system has a wonderful concept of "station" which you could quite literally interpret as class, caste etc. I often wonder whether in the industrial world as individuals have reached beyond our station. How many people identify themselves with say the middle class and they set themselves up to reach for all of the trappings of that class? It's a recipe for disappointment and a source of revenue for companies which sell useless stuff that we think that we may need in order to provide social validation.

It also surprises me how many comments refer to a basic lack of household skills or the lack of time to undertake those skills. We all need to focus on those basic skills and reduce debt as they are the insurance policy that will provide a buffer for the age of decline that is to shortly come.

In addition to this I have noticed that it is women that lack social and family support networks that struggle the most with child raising. Children make poor company. We have decided not to have children and as such are fairly impartial observers. I noticed that some comments referred to isolation and maintenance of sanity. The current tendency towards having single family households is a recent aberration. It would be more appropriate to have other family members providing support and useful services within the household economy, even at the expense of the real economy. The central point though is that like a village, they must provide useful support and services otherwise they are simply another mouth to feed and support.

As a child of a single parent household I'm often surprised at the strength of gender stereotypes. It would be useful if parenting partners treated each other as equals and in the situation where both partners work the domestic load was shared. From my observations this is not often the case and women take up the larger share of the domestic economy and as a result everyone is diminished.

Good luck!

4/16/10, 2:28 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Keep up the good work, keeping it real for people!

Why do people continue to persist that the Internet will keep going regardless?

If a government had to choose between using scarce electrical resources to pump water and sewage or provide power for a server farm (or a mobile phone tower for that matter), it's simply a no brainer.

Interestingly enough, being on the end of the power line and in a area prone to bushfires, the powers that be recently submitted a plan to the ongoing Royal Commission here to cut off power to these areas on high risk days. Think, high temperatures when the load on the grid from air conditioning use skyrockets and the result is that power lines sag and fail causing fires. The locals here don't think that it will happen, however I'm not so sure as it's a great way to get load shedding into place. Even better reason not to be connected in the first place!

Thanks again.

Good luck!

4/16/10, 2:40 AM

nutty professor said...
I agree with Jason, the tone this week is uncharacteristically peevish, but as always you are right on target, and there are tons of comments to attest to that. I find your words both challenging and reassuring. Awaiting the next installment of Star's Reach, thank you sir

4/16/10, 5:38 AM

mistah charley, ph.d. said...
Just a a couple of footnotes to the discussion:

1)A point Sharon Astyk and Elizabeth Warren call attention to deserves re-emphasis - just how well the cash-economy-centered feminism of "freedom's just another word for having a corporate job to lose" plays into the hands of the banksters and their ilk (the Military Industrial Congressional Financial Corporate Media Complex).

2)Contrariwise, the word "economy" originally meant "household management" (its Greek root), and it and the word "economical" are historically prior to the word "economics" (15th century in English versus 1792, according to my sources at Merriam-Webster).

4/16/10, 7:36 AM

Andrew MacDonald said...
A few folks commented on the loneliness of the stay-at-home person.

We've had just the opposite experience and have helped initiate a stack of community-building get-togethers to learn and practice mutual support skills. Our relocalizing economy is community-wide and not limited to the household. We think this is the future.

4/16/10, 7:46 AM

Third Chimp said...
As a long-time lurker, I have to chime in, if only to "poll" the comments section higher on this post. Another aspect of the two-earner family: when a high proportion of families do this, the system prices this extra income into goods & services, ie. things are more expensive because they are bid higher by the two-income households. Ten years ago we made the switch to single income, now even less than that, living happily below poverty line, eating natural or organic, pasture fed meats, wringing more money needs out of the household operation all the time. Thanks for saying it so well JMG!

4/16/10, 8:05 AM

Anne said...
Great post.

It's worth pointing out it isn't just a choice between a job and being a house-wife or a house-husband. My husband describes himself as an 'urban peasant' and spends many productive hours in our half-acre allotment, conveniently located in the allotments at the bottom of our street, growing fruit & veg and chopping wood for our wood-burner but also has a freelance business as an environmental educator

I work four days a week as a Team Manager in the National Health Service. I probably do 5 days work in 4, but prefer to have 3 clear days a week away from work. I am concerned about the long-term viability of employment as health service manager, they are already making management cuts in my organisation. Would like to move to being self-employed myself in the future although fear of losing that regular income is a big barrier to taking that step.

My income pays the bills and his income means we can still afford extras like holidays, although most of our holidays are to druid camps or Buddhist Retreats, at which in some instances we can offset costs by volunteering as site crew or kitchen crew to get free days. We don't want and don't need a lot of the stuff that the consumerist mass media promote such as fashion clothes (charity shops are fine for most things), HD widescreen TVs, dishwashers etc.


4/16/10, 9:04 AM

Cash Gorman said...
It was probably my post on the internet you dumped, why I don't know because I made my reasons very clear from a financial and energy viewpoint. To say radio in some form will survive and the internet will not does not make a whole lot of sense

The internet as we know it will simply evolve into a more local system, most likely wireless as is currently being run in more rural locations. All that's required is a server, a hacked wireless router and a tall structure to mount a antenna, such as a water tower, church spire or even a TV antenna tower on a hill.

Even a standard wireless router can transmit 10KM line of site, which means anyone within eyeshot can login. How much power does this use? not much the router less than 10 watts a small server less than 300 watts.

4/16/10, 9:52 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Maw Kernewek, by all means join the Old Cornwall Society! This is exactly the sort of voluntary institution that needs to be supported. If you're up to learning Cornish -- and it's not that hard -- you could become a bard of the Gorsedh Kernow while you're at it... ;-)

Preppy, if I could, I'd brand that comment of yours -- "Ultimately it is the system cost which will bring nature back into balance" -- into the backside of every one of the people who keep posting nonresponses to the issues I raise.

Twilight, technology is a religion -- or, more precisely, technologies are the icons and holy relics of the religion of progress. Of course people are going to cling to faith in them!

Cash, of course every family has to crunch the numbers and make the decision for itself.

Wendy, look into the many ways that people who now make a living from the internet used to do so. There are plenty of options.

Steve, that's good to hear.

Noni, granted. That's one of the reasons that communities come into being -- to provide the collective force that allows freeloaders and con artists to be tossed out. I expect to see quite a bit of that in the years to come.

Girl, that sounds a good deal more plausible than it did the first time you mentioned it!

Sophie, good. That's quite true; it's not working at home so much as being confined in the isolation of the suburbs, I think, that drove so many women into the work force. I grew up in suburbia, for that matter, and wouldn't live in a suburb now for any amount of money.

Cherokee, I think the true believers in the eternal internet simply haven't learned to think in terms of limits. The idea that resources have to be prioritized, and that getting their online porn just isn't that high of a priority, is completely foreign to them.

Professor, the confrontational tone was quite deliberate -- and as you see, it's done a very nice job of sparking discussion!

Mistah Charley, both good points.

Andrew, good to hear!

Chimp, good for you.

Anne, I wonder if that sort of lifestyle is a Druid thing! My wife and I manage our income and lives in much the same way -- I write, she telecommutes part time, both of us do a lot of gardening and other household economy work. I know several other families in the Druid community who have the same kind of lifestyle. Hmm...

Cash, no, it wasn't your post I dumped, but I see it might as well have been. You're still ignoring the systems costs -- from what industrial infrastructure are you going to get your spare parts, pray tell? You're still ignoring the economic issues -- when your range is reduced to 10 km, there are dozens of much less expensive ways to send letters and, yes, purchase porn. Once again, IT IS NOT ENOUGH TO CLAIM TECHNICAL FEASIBILITY AND DESIRABILITY. To remain stuck on those two points, and ignore the systems issue, is to put wishful thinking in place of reason.

Enough. I put this post of yours through because you've been a regular commenter here, but no more comments of this kind will be put through.

4/16/10, 11:17 AM

MawKernewek said...
I am a learner of the Cornish language. I passed the second grade exam in it last summer.

My gran is actually a bard of Gorsedh Kernow. For work with the Old Cornwall society.

The transition towns movement also has a presence in Cornwall.

I think I could do a lot of good in being a link between these two organisations.

4/16/10, 12:59 PM

Richard said...
My first time to your blog on the referral of my older brother and I am so glad he told me to check it out.
Well written post, speaking my language and confirming my belief in the changes that will come to the future generations. And those changes will not be what they think they will be.
I'm going to share your blog with my friends and readers of my blog so they can see that I'm not the only one who sees a different reality in the post peak period.

4/16/10, 2:02 PM

Mrs. Homegrown said...
Regarding the tedium of being stuck at home:

The study and mastery of the home arts is a source of constant challenge and fascination for me. If I'm not studying the chemistry of saponification, I'm absorbed the mysteries of fermentation. If I'm not investigating the goings on in our beehive, I've got my field guide out, and I'm trying to ID the newest bird in our backyard. If I'm not studying herbalism to make medicine, I'm considering the changing path of the sun and its relationship to our solar cooker. Heck, even making my own cleaning supplies is sort of fun. I doubt a day goes by when I don't learn something new.

Absorbed as we are in these pursuits--where work and play blend--my husband and I have zero desire to entertain ourselves by buying things--which is a good thing, because we're both writers. We work at home and make very little money. But we regard restricted income a liberation instead of a burden. If we had more money, we wouldn't change a thing. Well, no, that's a lie. The one thing we'd buy is more land, so we could keep livestock--and tackle a new learning curve.;)

I connect the degradation (and denigration) of homemaking with rise of the instant, the canned, the shrink-wrapped and pre-prepared--as well as the banishing of small livestock and kitchen gardens from cities. We lost a lot when we traded art for convenience.

But I do see lots of encouraging signs of it coming back. I teach this stuff, and our students are enthusiastic--people of all ages. I love introducing students to the wonders of worms, or watching their faces light up when they taste their first salad made of "weeds." Kids in their 20s may be maligned for being too jacked in to e-culture, but some of them really get it, and want to make change.

4/16/10, 3:40 PM

Noni Mausa said...
"...Noni, granted. That's one of the reasons that communities come into being -- to provide the collective force that allows freeloaders and con artists to be tossed out. I expect to see quite a bit of that in the years to come..."

Agreed, but probably arrived at by a series of catastrophe drop-downs, such as currently is happening with all the people going home to live with parents, children, kin or even friends, because of the loss of their homes. (There was an article last week - NYT? - saying that rental numbers haven't been rising but household sizes have been rising.)

These outcomes (extended families, home cooking, and making one's own entertainment, for instance) may resemble the practical, kindly or even sweet stories we have been hearing in this thread (congratulations, all!) but I wonder if they won't be poisoned somehow by the financial disaster that made them necessary.

grouchy tonight

4/16/10, 4:15 PM

disaffected said...
One of the more thought provoking and immediately practical useful posts of recent vintage. Any "peevishness" detected was vented repectfully, and, more importantly, was directly on point.

Although I was immediately receptive to JMG's arguments supporting single-earner families (a much overlooked means of coping with the current situation, or ANY situation for that matter), I was equally enlightened by the many user comments that exposed the many downsides to such a strategy that I had simply failed to consider (mental health, single income risk in the interim, etc).

All in all, another great post on one of the most informed, yet little heard of, blogs out there. Ain't that how the best things in life usually go? Keep 'em coming.

By the by, the posts that continue to simplistically ignore overall systems costs/vulnerabilities DO get to be a bit irritating. It's as if some commenters simply want to argue for argument's sake. But that's just me.


4/16/10, 5:01 PM

Rodney said...
Absolutly love your blog,
We are a family of 5 living on one income,
Recently we have had help from the state, but hope the economy gets better.
We don't watch tv or care what the Americans think of us,
Out here in hawaii.
Keep up the good work

4/16/10, 5:16 PM

dancing-in-the-rain said...
It's my belief that the way forward is much simpler than we might imagine, this week's posting is one such simple step. The overall idea of course is to simply drop consumption levels down by not buying or participating in the consumerist system. Extract one piece at a time, let the globalized multinational entities fade when you withdraw your support from them. Support local farming, single income households, unplug yourself from your TV, throw them out ideally. The solutions aren't hard, I think of it as the 5% fix, that is, if 5% of the population really does this, the system will begin to bend, not because you want it to, but because it must, remove the funding, that is the major weakness of this system, and it can do virtually nothing if you simply refuse to pay or play the game. The Tea Partyers know the value of that key 5%... It's not nearly as hard as people make it out to be, it simply requires a commitment to do as you say, not to just babble and type online missives endlessly while buying your next iPhone, iPad, or Prius.

4/16/10, 5:49 PM

Symple said...
The problem I see with this idea is that we live in a consumer driven economy. If we go to a one income model, it will have to involve a reduction in consuming. The less we consume, the worse the economy will be and less jobs. Then soon we will be in a depression where there will be very few jobs.

Of course this is going to happen anyway. But alterations to business as usual will not change the collapse that is probably inevitable. They may delay but that is it. Rapid population decline combined with rapid and radical consumption decline is our only hope of having any chance of avoiding the collapse. All else is just about alleviating guilt and making us feel good.

I have to admit that I have not read the previous blogs, so I may be out of place with this comment, although I hope I am not inappropriate.

4/16/10, 6:41 PM

Red Neck Girl said...
JMG said: Girl, that sounds a good deal more plausible than it did the first time you mentioned it!

Ha! You ain't 'seen' nothin' yet!

Many people may have guessed I'll be using earth bags. For the size stable I want to build that's going to be a very LARGE hole in the ground which will make a fantastic farm pond. My best friend is already envisioning perch, both large and small mouthed bass and the attendant hybrids. (Yet another food source.) The run off from the arena and stable will go first into those ugly, expensive, plastic cisterns you can buy at the grange to supplement the well water. The overflow will be channeled into first a cattail bed (for cleansing the water) and on into the pond. There are boo coup uses for cattails including food and insulation for outdoor wear, (the fluff is buoyant and was used in WW II in life vests), I might even convert some into paper. And in the summer time I can use the pond to irrigate a few pastures. Hmmm, wonder if I could grow wild rice in the pond? I'll have to do some research!

My dwelling as I envision it will be basically a modern version of a Hacienda. A large house on one corner, a detached 'garage' on the second, small stable on the third, dog kennels across the back wall and a greenhouse on the fourth corner butting up to the 'outdoor furnace' for radiant heat for the house floors and the green house. On the walls of the courtyard and buildings I'll espalier some of the more delicate edible fruit vines. I'll also be looking into the area adapted olive trees, a dozen or so for eating, cooking oil and soap making.

And with the 'hacienda' being built I'll have another pond, although smaller, that in need could be used to keep my garden and cultivated trees watered. Maybe I'll plant papyrus in that one? Definitely water chestnuts! Oh, and don't forget sun chokes / Jerusalem artichokes!

I always try to find more than one use for a feature as well in the case of building with earth bags the absence of soil. In making an asset out of one thing make a virtue out of utilizing the situation created by the manufacture or construction.

As my Texan Momma would say, "Sometimes I'm smart and not jist where the hide's rubbed off!"

4/16/10, 8:19 PM

Jane said...
This is indeed an interesting post.

I remained at home with my children for many of the reasons that you cite. And yes, my family were better off financially and my children (who are all grown up now) are all the better for may care. I am well educated and that was of even more advantage to my children.

By now, I am divorced (my ex-husband behaved so badly that I could not continue) and so I am unemployed, very poor (though able to live on very little) and skilled at those things that earn very little also. The quality of my handmade clothing and hand-knitted socks is good. The vegetables from my garden are healthy and inexpensive and I am very happy and un-stressed... just unable to repair those things in my house that need it... and some of them are dire.

I wouldn't swap my life now, but it seems a little unfair to be so very poor after such a lot of work.

Whichever partner stays at home to care for the household, children and/or the household economy will be less employable and poorer in the long run. I would love to be able to find a way of earning money... many people who are at home would like to and are conned by "earn money at home" advertisements, but the rate of pay for household work is very low. I have sewed for other people and as an outworker for garment manufacturers, but even that is no longer possible... I can't buy fabric as inexpensively as comparable Chinese made garments. I sell jams and preserves for enough to pay for sugar and spices. I have cleaned other people's houses. But to earn enough to be able to pay for the registration of my car or the petrol to run it is very difficult. (I live in a country town with no public transport at all.)

Staying at home was my choice (when it was very unfashionable and we needed to move ofen for my then-husband's career) but is has proven to be a serious disadvantage in the long run.

4/16/10, 10:05 PM

Greg said...
Just regarding what was called “feminism”. I certainly remember during the economic shrink of the 70's-80's the fear given off by guys when considering their wives taking up a career (or even just a job) because they believed that it was the mans responsibility to do what's needed “out there” to take care of the family.
Then 15 years later hearing similar men being particularly happy that they no longer needed to worry about being forced to work their backsides off in dangerous dirty jobs to keep the household afloat, who saw life with their families as an enjoyable and rewarding experience rather than a worrisome burden. Quote. “my wife makes twice what I could, so I just take enough work to bring in a bit extra, keep my hand in and keep the business ticking over”. So...who got liberated there?? .

Hi Neon
“Excellent post. We are doomed”

Ummmm.. sorry but I don't think that's helping much. And I dont believe that Hegelian master/slave dialectic helps either. Its a mental trap with no good exit. I suggest you try skydiving. A spot of unmitigated terror helps shift my perspective real good and fast. ...(?? doesnt do much for my grammar though )

Heh heh.. I crack me up sometimes ;)

4/16/10, 10:50 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Maw Kernewek, pur dha!

Richard, thank you!

Mrs. Homegrown, I've seen quite a few young people doing knitting and crocheting recently, so there's definitely hope.

Noni, in some cases yes, but not inevitably. Hard times have a way of bringing out what's best in people, as well as what's worst.

Disaffected, you're right that some people like to argue for the sake of arguing; we call those "trolls." Still, I think there's more going on here.

Rodney, good for you.

Dancing, there are certainly some simple steps, but I'm not as sanguine as you are that all of them are simple.

Symple, you should probably read the previous posts here! I'd suggest that the situation we face is a good deal subtler and more complex than you've suggested.

Girl, excellent.

Jane, I wish I could say that there was an answer that always works for everyone, but of course that's not true. For what it's worth, I know people who put 20 years into a career and are now in much the same situation you are, their career having folded out from under them the way your marriage did.

Greg, now if the guys will simply get to work doing something useful around the house!

4/17/10, 6:15 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Cash (offlist), no, you didn't address any of my points. Airily insisting that the internet will keep on going because you want it to isn't all that convincing, you know.

4/17/10, 6:18 AM

Peck's Bad Boy said...
You failed to take in to account the long term benefits of both adults working. I am speaking about pension systems, social security, medical insurance which have payoffs in later years. I and my wife both worked full time except for a brief period 2 years following the birth of our daughter. We are now retired and have adequate income and affordable health insurance which hopefully will see us through the next 25 years. The 2 year period where just I was employed back in 1970 was probably the hardest times we went through.

4/17/10, 7:26 AM

zapoteca said...
This comment is for Jane. My heartfelt empathy goes to you.

I think we've all been conned in the 20th C by the myth of love as a foundation for lifelong partnership. Trading one's options forever on a promise of'love' is not a good bet. Hedging is VERY costly. It means establishing the means of independent existence exactly at the point in life when you are 'in love' and want to settle down to enjoy wedded bliss and babies.

The truism is, you can't have everything you want at the same time. The 20s are when you establish qualifications and also seek a mate and start a family. The price of lifelong independence is establishing your qualifications while starting your family - a choice that consigns you to ten, maybe fifteen years of no discretionary time, acknowledging that the bulk of your salary is going into trade for others' time. In the short term, this is a sucker's bet, and fuels the argument for dropping out. In the long term, if you are survival minded, it means that if the marriage dissolves you have your own credentials and are not mired in poverty.

What kept me going was the knowledge that I was trading slavery now for freedom in the future.

My children have turned out well: centered, capable, and very aware of 'system costs' in the choices they make. My 'system cost' was the net sum of options over my lifetime. Doing nothing but working, studying, and childrearing - and sleeping three hours a night - over that first decade or so laid the foundation for their college educations with no student loan requirement to burden them now.

As in the majority of cases, my marriage ended. But the early years of strung out focus and work-study-household obligations that permitted only three or four hours of sleep paid out. I have a reputation and credentials. I am able to think clearly and ruthlessly, if need be. I will always opt for freedom.

Jane, I wish I had known somebody like you during the strung out years. I would happily have traded half my salary for your able assistance in running my household while I was laying my foundation for independence. Perhaps you could establish this kind of partnership with similarly strung out women. You are worth your weight in gold to them.

JMG - please acknowledge that the partner who gives up her options and her future freedoms for the sake of staying at home gets royally screwed on occasion. And that part of self reliance must include building up a stock of intellectual capital that will permit survival on your own. As we have seen, selling knit and canned goods doesn't cut it. IMHO, Systems thinking implies you can't discount the need for cash - especially as a discarded woman - while waiting out the hundred years of long decline, at which point knitting and canning will once again assume economic viability.

Great post and thought provoking, as usual. Thank you.

4/17/10, 9:19 AM

spottedwolf said... is simply a pleasure to know you. I do not say such things 'lightly'. You epitomize your generation and your long and arduous study of life patterns....organized into cogent treatises summarize this fact. Since last year, when Dirk (hapibeli) asked me to have a look at your blog, I have repeatedly seen mirrors of myself and the long road to understand our human condition both socially as well as intrinsically. You do the tail of my generation proud, my friend, and your research and articulate presentations bear witness. With respect to our prior exchange I add that I do not worry about the dilemnas mankind creates for itself anymore. "She' is an 'old mother'....this planet we borrow.....and she will birth and bury without favoritism those who listen to the truths well as those who don't.

Your Friend sir,
Dennis Ouellette aka spottedwolf

4/17/10, 10:14 AM

PanIdaho said...
Slightly off-topic for this post, but not for the blog in general...

JMG, could you recommend some books that look at the economy - the global economy in particular - in the light of it being something like a man-made ecosystem? I am wondering if there might be some interesting parallels there between how organisms in general change their environment, adapt to it, compete within it and exploit available resources in a natural ecosystem and how humans change their economic environment, adapt to it, compete within it and exploit available resources in what could be called a man-made "econosystem." I wonder if looking at things from an ecological perspective might explain at least some of what seems to be totally insane human behavior with regard to resource allocation, pollution and population growth.

I'm assuming there are books that cover this subject, but I haven't as yet had much luck finding them. I figured you're probably the person to ask, and if by some chance you don't have any suggestions, maybe the other folks on here have heard of such a thing and can give me a push in the right direction.


4/17/10, 12:14 PM

K said...
This volcanic-ash story is absolutely fascinating, in terms of it being an extremely sudden-onset microcosm of what happens when a technology most everyone takes for granted is unavailable. People's reactions (which I've read in articles and various blogs) run the gamut of the sort of responses I think we can expect as this starts to happen on a larger, more permanent scale. I imagine you're following the news too, and I anticipate you addressing the story at some point. Amazing to think that there's really no firm end in sight for this massive shutdown of airspace.

4/17/10, 3:57 PM

gypsymeadowsfarm said...
As always a thoughtful breath of fresh air.

We are in the middle of a very important object lesson from Mother Nature regarding systems and technology. A rather small volcano has shut down a whole network of technology, the jet airplane, even if we want it to work. We can never adapt or change technology as fast or as completely as nature can change, whether it be climate or economy.

4/17/10, 6:11 PM

Symple said...
I imagine that most, not all, folks reading this blog are well educated and hold well paying jobs. Is this the majority of the first world population? What percent of the workforce are blue collar, minimum or low wage earners, self employed etc. For a lot of people two couple after tax income covers the rent,food,clothes, health care,car payments,gas other non optional expenses,savings and some entertainment. What percent have jobs that can cover the basics and live a decent life on one salary? Especially those who are urban dwellers.

4/17/10, 9:49 PM

xhmko said...
Just found an address given by the late Lady Eve Balfour to an IFOAM conference in Switzerland in 1977 regarding the Haughley Experiments in comparing organic farming with chemical based agriculture. Her words are extremely pertinent to this thread and the discussions we need to be having about whole systems approach as the analogy of our [mis]understanding of soil systems can be applied to many scenarios in which we neglect to take into account the underlying processes that feed into the goods and services we use. Here's a couple of quotes from the address and I'll post the link at the bottom.

" is argued that organic farming is less efficient, that it has to rely on re-cycling which is wasteful, so that were it to be adopted, world food production would inevitably be lower, particularly production of protein, at a time when what we need is to produce ever more per acre...Certainly we need to produce more per acre. Unfortunately the yardstick of modern economics is to measure the efficiency by production per man."


"Contrary to the views held by some, I am sure that the techniques of organic farming cannot be imprisoned in a rigid set of rules. They depend essentially on the outlook of the farmer. Without a positive and ecological approach it is not possible to farm organically. The approach of the modern conventional farmer is negative, narrow and fragmentary, and consequently produces imbalance. His attitude to 'pests' and 'weeds', for example, is to regard them as enemies to be killed--if possible exterminated. When he attacks them with lethal chemicals he seldom gives a thought to the effect this may have on the food supply or habitat of other forms of wildlife among whom he has many more friends than foes. The predatory insects and the insectivorous birds are obvious examples.

The attitude of the organic farmer, who has trained himself to think ecologically, is different. He tries to see the living world as a whole. He regards so-called pests and weeds as part of the natural pattern of the Biota, probably necessary to its stability and permanence, to he utilized rather than attacked. Throughout his operations he endeavours to achieve his objective by co-operating with natural agencies in place of relying on man-made substitutes. He studies what appear to be nature's rules - as manifested in a healthy wilderness--and attempts to adapt them to his own farm needs, instead of flouting them.

One of the first things be will notice about a natural eco-system such as a Wilderness or a Natural Forest is Balance and Stability. The innumerable different species of fauna and flora that go to make up such a community, achieve, as a result of their interdependence, whether in cooperation or competition, collective immortality. Seldom, if ever, is any species eliminated; seldom, if ever, does any species multiply to pest proportions. Thus the organic farmer, if he has a crop badly attacked by some pest, let us say, (and this can happen, even to organic farmers!) recognises that this is a symptom of imbalance in his local environment, and he first looks to see if some faulty technique of his own has been responsible--often it has."

4/17/10, 9:59 PM

Ric said...
This is off on a bit of a tangent for this essay, but speaks to larger themes you frequently bring up:

The article is about the appalling conditions in a Chinese factory making Microsoft mice. But the comments are what I want to bring to your attention. The cluelessness on display is far more disturbing than anything described in the article.

On a different topic, my wife works in the travel industry. She has the privilege of dealing with a different kind of cluelessness as a result of the volcanic eruption. For the last two days, she has had to deal with people that assume she can just pick up a phone and make the ash clouds go away. Her office expects it to only get worse as this drags on for days, weeks, possibly months. Given how ugly it is only a couple days in, next week could prove interesting for her.

4/18/10, 4:46 AM

RJ said...
Thanks again for another column as well as a forum for discussion.

Since we're talking about the systemic implications of resource depletion, it may be useful to differentiate between dollars and resources. It's been said that dollars represent a claim on human labor. An acceptance of that premise virtually guarantees a lower standard of living for the majority of humans living within an environment of declining energy stocks.

The Federal Reserve's response to the cheap energy premised housing bubble collapse, has been to exchange soured r.e. assets for assets backed by the full faith and credit of the US government. Seeing as how the US dollar serves as reserve currency for much of the world, the expansion of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet has significant implications for the broader labor market.

As economic expansion halts, certainly dollars become dear for those struggling to repay debts, while digital dollars transferred to the largest of banks sit on their balance sheets waiting for real estate asset prices to improve (unlikely), a come to Jesus moment of loss recognition (also unlikely), or another asset class waiting to be recognized as a storehouse of value and thus worthy of capital deployment.

It's a bit esoteric, but the concept can best be explained as physics v. hubris. To be completely subjective concerning the coming decline in human "standards of living", or living at all for that matter, is almost impossible. For me anyway.

4/18/10, 7:05 AM

Hecate said...
let’s assume that a great many men will make the choice I did, and work full time in the household economy while the women in their lives work full time for a paycheck.

Not while women earn seventy cents to the dollar.

4/18/10, 9:20 AM

K said...
Alain de Botton wrote a nice essay for the BBC about a world without airplanes. I know it's off topic, so you don't need to post it, but I thought you'd enjoy it:

4/18/10, 9:54 AM

z said...
I imagine that most, not all, folks reading this blog are well educated and hold well paying jobs. Is this the majority of the first world population? What percent of the workforce are blue collar, minimum or low wage earners, self employed etc. For a lot of people two couple after tax income covers the rent,food,clothes, health care,car payments,gas other non optional expenses,savings and some entertainment. What percent have jobs that can cover the basics and live a decent life on one salary? Especially those who are urban dwellers.

our monthly budget for 2 people and 1 child is 2,000 to live comfortably. This will reduce over time as we become more self sufficient and develop the 'domestic economy'. however I would have thought most 'blue collar' wages would approach this level.

4/18/10, 12:26 PM

DIYer said...
On reading this week's title, the first thing I thought was "systems are like standards: the beauty of systems is that there are so many to choose from". And of course this is where some blindness comes in; it's difficult to pay attention at all scales simultaneously.

As for household economies, we can and probably will soon wring more efficiency out of larger groups than single families. Some fringe religious groups come to mind -- occasionally they turn up in news stories, and they're living in a rural complex and apparently thriving, though only a small fraction of the adult population is "employed". Of course the hard part in taking advantage of that strategy for myself is that I have to find a group of like-minded people and somehow fit in with them, or lead them.

4/18/10, 1:04 PM

MawKernewek said...
I have begun a blog myself. I'm hoping to cover topics ranging from astronomy, Cornish language, sustainability, and whatever comes up really.

4/18/10, 2:03 PM

Bryan Allen said...
Mr. Greer, reading this week's post and many of the comments evokes the first line of "Anna Karenina" for me. I can't be the only one reading who reflects wistfully that it takes both partners in a couple to agree to make a one-income frugal lifestyle work. If one of the partners has a terminal case of affluenza, the Darwinian selection pressures you mention in your final stanzas are then directed at the marriage itself. Perhaps that's the meta-theme of your blog: Welcome to Evolution in Action.

4/18/10, 5:34 PM

disaffected said...

"let’s assume that a great many men will make the choice I did, and work full time in the household economy while the women in their lives work full time for a paycheck. Not while women earn seventy cents to the dollar."

Of course you're leaving out the fact that wages, given your preconditions, would adjust in the interim as well. Not that they'd necessarily adjust fairly or timely; but they WOULD nevertheless adjust just the same.

4/18/10, 6:17 PM

AgedSpirit said...
Dear JMG,
Excellent post this week! Thank you.
It’s heartening to hear about so many other people who are actually living according to their own choices rather than just going along with the main current. I have often felt like I’m the only person doing this and I’m delighted to find that I’m wrong.
Redneck Girl: I’m guessing that I live in your region. I have many interests and skills that could be valuable to your project. Please contact me via email: mike64x64 (at) yahoo (dot) com so that we can talk directly. Thanks.

4/18/10, 7:00 PM

dltrammel said...
Redneckgirl, you should look into aquaculture. It's a method that joins hydroponics up with fish farming. While its normally done in tanks for the fish, you could possibly use the run off from your fish pond to irrigate your garden. Some sort of loop system comes to mind but its been a long day so I'll leave the idea for you to explore.

BTW, I'm fleshing out some post collapse future fiction where one character wants to open a livery stable and would appreciate a knowledgeable expert to proof a few details if you have the time.

And JMG, chalk me up as one of the "The Internet will be there" who has seen the light. Now I just need to get my essentials (resource books and porn) backed up to CDs...:)

4/18/10, 7:43 PM

Glenn said...

IMO JMG's essay was meant as an example of one possible system (the household economy) there are many other systems he might have examined.
That being said, I am a retired military vet, mostly self educated, work as a carpenter to augment my very small govt. pension. (See my post at top). We paid cash for everything, including our two used motor vehicles, our land, and our yet to be completed house. Entertainment frequently consists of walking to the beach and admiring the Olympic Mountains.
We consider that we are living a decent life on less than one salary. I guess it's all in what you consider a decent life to be. We have no McMansion, SUV, swimming pool, electronic games, broadcast TV, Cable, satellite or debt.
We do have trees, berry bushes, a large garden, walking and rowing access to the Olympic Peninsula and the Salish Sea and a vital community of boat hippies, craftspeople and organic farmers and gardeners.
I'd call us working class people with middle class educations.


4/18/10, 9:56 PM

Karen said...
I had to smile when I read your latest post. Although both of us still work full-time, I learned all the "old skills" (knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening) and continue to use them today.

My approach has and continues to be that in a post peak oil economy, those of us that are resilient and can maintain a household economy will be ahead of the game.

As both of us are self-employed, there have been times when one of us was not working and the other took over the majority of our household economy.

We are also one of those rare birds that eat home-cooked meals 80% of the time. We live in Europe where local markets with local produce still thrive.

As for gender issues, it is always a matter of whether each party is dealing in good faith.

4/19/10, 3:34 AM

dltrammel said...
Sorry that should have been "aquaponics" not aquaculture.

Here's a good thread on it.

4/19/10, 5:34 AM

Karen said...
Isis, there's a reason why people used to choose prospective spouses for their reliability and economic prospects, rather than romantic love. Mind you, these days being employed in the money economy is no guarantee against ending up unemployed with no prospects, but that's another matter.


You touched on a point that has always fascinated me. I learned from the "old folks" to pick a mate based on reliability, economic prospects and love in that order.

Most of my contemporaries thought I was a bit crazy but looking back, I think I made the wiser choice. Romance has its place and is a wonderful thing but for the long-term health of a relationship to weather the storms that life inveritably brings, the first two are very important.

4/19/10, 5:50 AM

hapibeli said...
The various posts regarding society's reaction to the loss of technology [air travel] due to the volcano IS certainly instructive of the reactions to be expected with future loss of even more tech due to energy disruption.

4/19/10, 7:34 AM

hapibeli said...
An interesting interview of a wise elder, Prof James Lovelock. He tells it like it is, or rather will be, I imagine...

4/19/10, 8:04 AM

frijolitofarmer said...
Relying on a single income makes a single job loss devastating. The same "single income" effect may be achievable by two earners each working part-time jobs. If they have children, they can stagger their schedules so someone is always home to care for them.

Actually, this is even possible with full-time employment, depending on what it is. This is what my wife and I do. She works from home as a web designer and I work as a farmer. When I can, I take our son with me to work in the gardens or to tend the chickens. If I'm going to be doing something more dangerous, he stays at home and plays while his mom works on the computer. If she needs to meet with a client, she schedules it with me ahead of time so I can arrange to be home. Neither of us bring in a lot of money this way, but together, it's about a single income.

One of the traps of buying into the single income strategy is the belief that it is inherently economical. This isn't so. If a couple has no children, walk to work, and have lunch at home, dress casually at work, and already do all their own housework, they don't save anything by having one person stay home. Any quality of life increase gained by having more time together in the evenings (because the stay-at-home person is getting the housework done while the earner is away) may well be negated by the stress of poverty if the stay-at-home person isn't doing anything to actually generate money with their domestic activities. A shiny floor doesn't pay the bills. :)

One thing we've found essential is the idea that everything should either generate money or at least not cost anything. Most of the things we do for recreation are potential sources of income. When we make a purchase, one of the key questions we ask is "how will this pay for itself?"

This approach causes a shift in perception. I scarcely ever step foot into a store like JCPenny or the like, because they have nothing I'd be interested in buying. Our clothes come from thrift stores or discount department stores. A bunch of the other stuff--fancy curtain rods and holiday-themed tableware and knicknacks to show off smelly candles and ruffly skirts to put around the bottom of the bed--we just flat out don't use and couldn't fathom spending money on.

To be sure, this shift in values creates a rift between us and our middle-class families, the women of which make shopping for such things their chief recreational activity. We don't value what they value.

I was speaking with a man I met in the Peak Oil community who expressed that his biggest problem in preparing was convincing his wife that it was necessary. He wants to get started growing things while she wants to "invest" for their retirement.

I'm apprehensive about this social divide. At a time when families will need each other most, it may be that some members will be dragging the rest of the family down by denying that there's a problem. Any thoughts on this?

4/19/10, 8:05 AM

Houyhnhnm said...
Red Neck Girl said: "What will I do on my stable when the ship of state starts taking on water? I intend to have a good line of working Quarter horses and stock dogs to train and sell."

You might also want to consider starting to breed "farm chunks," light draft utility stock.

Too many sustainable farmers think only of terms of purebred draft stock. As far as I'm concerned, half-bred draft stock will be far more useful and easier to supply from the current horse population. The AQHA-Belgian (or whatever quality draft stallion you can find) cross is a no brainer for most small farms.

Houyhnhnm of

4/19/10, 8:14 AM

Corpus Callosum said...
I guess this will be a bit OT regarding this week's post, but very much in keeping with the general thread of the blog:

An excellent 2009 BBC2 series called "Victorian Farm" is being re-run on TV Ontario this spring. Tonight Episode 2 (of 6) will air. For those of you who actually have TVs and get TVO, this is a series that is not to be missed.

The wiki page on the show has all the links you'll need to get the drift of the series:

What is most certainly "On Topic" about this show is its immense popularity in the UK. Perhaps the message of sustainable living is creeping back into the collective myth on a sub-conscious level more widely and quickly than is commonly recognized.

Despite the cozy bedtime stories proffered by the mainstream agents of the failing Keynesian Krackpot paradigm of perpetual growth through the magic of debt - er, I mean, Credit - perhaps a last vestige of economic sense yet survives in enough minds to make a difference: if it sounds too good to be true; it IS too good to be true.

Borrow and spend your way to prosperity? One of the many wise things that Adam Smith had to say is germane to that nonsense (I paraphrase): that which is prudent for a household can hardly be less so for an entire nation.

That thought should be kept in mind for the next time you hear one of these monetary Krackpots speak of the "paradox of thrift", or the great Dr. Greenspan himself attempt to lay the blame for this on-going economic debacle on "excess savings" by those pesky and economically “unsophisticated” Asians.

The authors of financial mass-destruction want to be in charge of the remedy, and, so far are getting their way. What a travesty! Whether this is the predictable result of following the tenets of a horribly flawed theory (Keynesianism) that is the wishful opposite of the truth, or a manifestation of the Hegelian Dialectic (Thesis = Classical Political Economy - Antithesis = Keynes - Synthesis = Global Corporatism), or, indeed both, for the two are not mutually exclusive, is impossible to know at this stage.

Speaking for the former is the long history of bumbling rises and falls of cultures and civilizations which seem to be able to learn - and re-learn - only the hard way.

Speaking for the latter is the realization that what is at stake is the ultimate power of King Midas. Wealth is Power and to create wealth is therefore to create Power ... except for the little flaw which it is the goal of this blog to point out ... Money is not Wealth, and the power to create it - the power to "turn stones into bread" that Lord Keynes arrogated to his puny theory is but an illusion.

Power over the minds of men can twist perception into mis-conception, and largely - in the realm of economics - has done so, but perhaps the massive appeal of a throw-back reality TV show like “Victorian Farm” demonstrates that people, by-and-large, still understand the difference between stones and bread.

4/19/10, 11:23 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
I've really been enjoying all the comments on this post! It's interesting to see the "filters" that people are looking through as they (we) comment -- the "now" which pits "cheaper" (not really) and faster hi-tech methods against low-tech, sustainable methods; the "soon-to-be" that postulates we'll need (and love?)those low-tech methods once the high-tech vanishes, and the "ideal" that seem to be based on powerful hopes or beliefs. For me, the low-tech solution is sometimes less attractive than the high-tech, but I believe I need to practice and I'll be grateful later on!

On the topic of those who can't give up technology, I have been re-reading Rollo May's "The Courage to Create" (great book!) and he has a pertinent observation, from the 70's:

Such channeling of creativity into techical pursuits is appropriate on one level but serves as a psychological defense on a deeper level. This means that technology will be clung to, believed in, and depended on far beyond its legitimate sphere, since it also serves as a defense against our fears of irrational phenomena.

Very prescient! It's really amazing how much of this stuff was known back in the 70's (and earlier) and yet not acted on or paid attention to...

Anyway, great discussion!

4/19/10, 6:46 PM

Joel said...
>the reason you won't is that you're so mesmerized by that monthly check

I think another important part of the reason is that control is such hard work. Making your own decisions and taking responsibility for the consequences is messy, and I think a lot of people want to leave all that to the professionals.

I also think this is part of the reason for the path feminism mostly took: taking charge of the re-construction of gender identity puts a lot of the same stresses on a person as keeping charge of the maintenance of a household. No one wants to outsource the former, so maybe it was expedient for (most) everyone to outsource the latter. If we were bossed around at work and marketed to at home, maybe that would free up enough gumption for the project of building equality.

>the hard edge of Darwinian selection separates adaptive cultural forms from maladaptive ones with the same ruthlessness it applies to genetics.

How hard is that edge, though? Lots of mildly-maladapted organisms survive, as do a lot of beliefs which aren't the very fittest. Similarly, I never meant to suggest that the internet would remain completely dominant, only that it would survive. I'll stipulate that it might soon have a similar share of the communication market, to the part draft animals now have in transportation and agriculture: not globally competitive, but able to survive in a few niches.

4/19/10, 7:35 PM

xhmko said...
dltrammel, there is a great article in the Chinese National Geographic about the Dai people in Yunnan and their method of having fish and ducks in their mountainous, terraced rice paddies. If you can get a hold of info on it or the issue of CNG itself there is a picture of one of the farmers collecting fish by hand for lunch while working in the paddies. Here's a link to the brief on the article.

4/19/10, 7:52 PM

Craig said...
My wife and I are raising a family while both working part-time, with a much better quality of life than any of the two-career families I know. In our (admittedly fairly unusual) area of the UK, there are plenty of others who have made the same choice. My bet is this will become much more common, due to growing unemployment (huge public sector job cuts on the way here after this years' election).

4/20/10, 8:17 AM

Joan said...
Feminism might usefully have challenged the relative social status assigned to the household and money economies, and pressed for a revaluation of work and gender that could have thrown open a much broader field of possibilities to people of both genders; and in fact some thoughtful steps were taken in this direction by a few perceptive thinkers in the movement. In general, though, that turned out to be the road not taken.

The reason it wasn't taken is because the ideas didn't get by the mainstream media gatekeepers. Advertisers want the public's dependence on the money economy to increase, not decrease.

On another topic, my favorite source of good wool yarn is damaged sweaters. Nobody knows how to darn anymore, so sweaters with holes or stains are often free for the unraveling.

4/20/10, 12:25 PM

wylde otse said...
Taxation of home-produced foods is up next(direct, or through property taxes); in order to control the population (also increased reg.of sales and distribution).

Still time in the USA to reclaim the (bribe-ridden)senate and congress from the multi-mega-corps.
You have the vote, and they have not yet confiscated the people's guns.

4/20/10, 4:32 PM

Symple said...
This is my last comment on the once income solution.

I posted about the percentage of people who can do this. The replies revolved around downsizing with the assumption that it is generally possible. One person commented on living on 2,000 a month for two adults and a child. I am an urban dweller, as the majority of people in North America in 2010 are. Where I live, if you are lucky, you can find a two bedroom place to live that is decent for 1000.00 per month. (Someone commented that decent meant a McMansion or something like it.) To me decent means somewhere without bugs or mold, with good neighbours, and where it is safe to venture out at night.
Then there are expenses, heat, hydro, telephone, basic foodstuff, basic clothing, transportation, some entertainment etc. For urban dwellers this option is limited to a select few. Those that are lucky enough to have a country place it is easier, but unless you have a portable job, an inheritance or other money, there ain’t a lot of jobs in the country.

Me and my wife are very frugal and if and when forced to could be even more. The downsizing, simplified, grow your own lifestyle is where I want to be. My wife has different aspirations. Someone else mentioned this for their own situation. My point is that as practice and preparation for survival with the changes that are coming, and for their own reward simplification is wonderful. If you think they will make any difference in preventing the collapse, I doubt it. I hope I am wrong.

4/20/10, 5:03 PM

Jason said...
@Corpus Callosum:

What is most certainly "On Topic" about this show is its immense popularity in the UK. Perhaps the message of sustainable living is creeping back into the collective myth on a sub-conscious level more widely and quickly than is commonly recognized.

That is definitely happening here in the UK, and it's not just that show. One called 'Grow Your Own Drugs', about making medicines from herbs, is on just now, and another about being self-sufficient with a city organic garden. Newspapers are running stuff about 'the return to the make and mend culture'.

Don't know how many are using what they learn, but someone must be. "Grow Your Own Drugs" is into its second series. Doesn't take itself hyper-seriously either -- the sight of the presenter waxing his legs with a homegrown concoction is not one I'll soon forget. :)

4/21/10, 2:48 AM

Santeri Satama said...
Blindness to systems has a deep link to blindness to money. On one hand, money fetish has a blinding effect to systems of energy economy, on the other hand there is general blindness to money system.

We should state the obvious, these two types of blindness are two sides of the same coin - literally.

The current money system of fiat monopoly money is based on debt and interest. Systemic thinking at simplest level (we are often most blind to most simple things) suggests very strongly that in degrowth environment money system based on debt and interest that require continuous growth won't survive. It's no secret that the current money system is a pyramid scam (the truth is staring at you from the one dollar bill, if you havent noted it). And self-evident systemic truth about all pyramid scams is that they collapse.

Can't wait and good riddens.

Now, what is fun and interesting about fiat-principle and internet is that as banksters do, anyone can create a money system out of thin aire, local money systems are well known but so are also in-game money systems and markets in on-line multi-roleplaying games. Which have lead to black market currency exchange systems between in-game money systems and governement monopoly money.

Now, systemic thinking can be besides analytical also creative. If energy economy is not an obstacle for maintaining internet, internet can be used as ecologically and socially sustainable money and market exchange systems by citizens initiatives, not excluding these forming inte parallel forms of self-governance to gradually replace the system that has decided to go down with bands and money as debt.

One simple idea is internet based (at least in the beginning) fiat currency created as a citizens salary for all participants (with inbuilt system of monetary equality that prevents too much money ending up in the hands of few and most being dire straits). Now that every citizen has money, the purchasing power of that money depends simply from what they produce to the exchange market. Communal free market system.

Anyone can create their own money system, creative systemic thinking allowed, if it gains momentum and starts rolling with positive feed-back mechanisms, anything can happen.

Indlucing making the internet worth keeping around. Monetarily. :)

4/21/10, 8:09 AM

Orchid Black said...
I live in an area of relative abundance and share in a truck coop with many families who have made that same leap. They home-school, the parents work at home or one parent works outside the, often but not always the man, and they reduce their consumption as much as possible.
So I see the value in the scenario you describe, and if health insurance and social security allowed for the valuing of in-home labor, more people might do it. Unfortunately, with the advent of frequent divorce, even women who'd like to just contribute to the informal economy have to keep their skills up just in case.
However, I must take issue with "it costs a great deal less to buy yarn than to purchase socks and afghans of anything like the quality a good knitter can make." I knit, I can make socks, but the yarn available to me, without buying fleece and spinning it myself, costs more than an equivalent pair of socks, such as "smart wool" socks. And I can't even hope to buy yarn that competes with my brand-name organic socks retailed at health food stores. These socks last me many years, and cost 1/4 of the equivalent yarn. It used to be true that buying yarn or buying fabric to make clothes was cheaper, than knitting or sewing the clothes, but that was a different time, and is not true right now.

4/21/10, 6:46 PM

Jack said...
WE both work part time, by choice. Grow most of our own food, one older vehicle, no mortgage. My wife works from home. We too are living a happy, healthy life with an income far below the "poverty line". Both gave up high income jobs years ago and quit the race (rat). You can too!

4/21/10, 7:51 PM

Symple said...
I would like to respond to Jack, because I am confounded by his statement that "you can to", and would like clarity. I stated in my last comment that I would not make any more comments on this topic. Are the other followers of this blog or JMG interested in further comments on this topic by me? If not, Jack or anyone else who is interested in further conversation about this, can email me through my profile.

Is there a blurb anywhere that states the basic gist of this blog?

4/21/10, 11:14 PM

Joan said...
One of the differences between housewifery and househusbandry is that men are much less likely to get the "Since you're going to be home all day..." treatment. This is where neighboring two-job households assume that, because a woman isn't going out to work, she isn't doing anything important during the day and so is free to do favors for them. "Can I have this delivery I'm expecting, that needs to be signed for, sent to your house?" "Can I have the twins dropped off at your house when they get out of kindergarden?" Etc., etc., and the next thing you know, your whole day is taken up with favors and you can't get anything done. When a man says he's working at home, people believe it unless they figure he's spending the day drinking beer and watching TV, in which case they figure he's too unreliable to be counted on for favors.

4/22/10, 3:33 AM

Brad K. said...

About "but it seems a little unfair to be so very poor after such a lot of work. " I think the point of the discussion, is that the time is coming when you may still feel that way, but you will be one among many that share and understand your situation. Today a lot of people are still thinking "that can't happen to me". As circumstances change, and the balance of affluent to working people shifts, you might not feel it is quite so unfair. Instead, you may be even more grateful for the garden, and what shelter and skills you now have.

Blessed be.

4/22/10, 12:14 PM

Ned said...
"When will Transition Town programs, let’s say, match up the experienced elderly with novice househusbands and housewives who want to learn how to cook, sew, can, garden, and knit?....Let’s just say I’m not going to hold my breath." You're missing some of the other things our local TT initiative is doing as well: next month it's a family bike day with multiple people (including me) demonstrating how to maintain and tune your bike. Sewing we haven't done yet, and I only know a couple of ladies who still know how to turn a collar, so we'd best get that going, too, before it's too late to reclaim the skill. We've been teaching cooking, and a couple of our members run community gardens in town. Canning workshops will happen in canning season, of course.
I really enjoy your choice of words, as in "the household economy collapsed, or survived only as a dowdy sort of hobby practiced by the insufficiently fashionable." Fortunately, I have always been insufficiently fashionable, so the transition to dowdy househusband was probably easier for me than for others. It's been more than 10 years since I've been an employee: my daughter is almost 11. Unfortunately, I don't fit into Joan's hypothesis: people still ask me for favors--they must think I'm sufficiently reliable, or insufficiently busy.
We moved to this house at the edge of the village so my wife can walk to work. I work now in the "household economy" alone. We have no mortgage, no debt, no furnace, no refrigerator (we do have two freezers,) no television set, and no end of projects to keep us busy. The past year has been one of turning outward and trying to engage more of our community in self-reliance and community resilience. So it is happening--we may be few and far between, but we're out here. Sowing seeds.

4/26/10, 9:43 PM

cedris said...
Very well said. In terms of the general problem you addressed, blindness to whole systems, I think there are many problems that perpetuate this blindness. Increasing complexing forces people into increasingly smaller niches where they are only working on very small parts of a system. The education system and media perpetuates this specialization and trains people to think in a way that ignores the whole system. Lets use an example of an engineer designing a highly efficient electric hot water heater. He may be the brightest engineer in the world, but fail to ask the really important questions, because he has been trained his entire life to have a very narrow focus to be able to work on such complex technologies. If he would look at the whole system of the house and supplying it with energy for various uses, he would quickly come to the conclusion that electric hot water heating is a very poor choice and other options like solar or gas would be much more efficient.

To quote Dick Proenneke,
"Too many men work on parts of things. Doing a job to completion satisfies me."

5/5/10, 12:53 PM

Christina said...
Hi there, just surfing by from Michael Tobis's blog. Interesting discussion. Sadly, I didn't have time to read all of the 143 comments, but I did read about a quarter of them and didn't see this mentioned in them, so I thought I should mention it:

Your one-income-family model takes some things for granted, too:

- (professional) work needs to be full-time
- commutes are long and done by car
- childcare will always have to be paid entirely by the family.

None of these are in fact quite so set in stone. I'd argue that a setup in which people worked shorter hours closer to home, and childcare was strongly subsidized (by taxes, which, granted, would have to be paid by families, too - but would distribute the cost more equally across society) would work just as well to increase quality of life, strengthen the home economy, and create a more sustainable way of life. Plus, it would reduce the risk of dependency that people - rightly, I think - see as one of the biggest problems of the one-income-family.

5/14/10, 6:10 AM

escapefromwisconsin said...
I've been preoccupied with a central contradiction of modern work - that is, we work all day at jobs we hate, which for the most part are meaningless and tedious (paper-pushing, marketing, etc.). We don't work when we want, but we put in our forty (at minimum) because that's what we are told to do. And yet we spend what free time we have hunting, fishing and gardening, presumably because we like thse activities - in other words, voluntarily doing the 'jobs' that allowed us to subsist on this planet for most of our history. What exactly are we getting from spending the vast majority of our days and hours of living laboring in the industrial ecomony, only to gain breif glimses of satisfaction doing what we had to do to survive anyway for most of human history. It makes no sense. Have we been so bought out by the toys and luxuries of inustry that we're wiling to trade away our lives? That's a rhetorical question; of course I know the answer.

5/28/10, 9:26 AM

Istoria Literaturii BD said...
Hy there, JMG. I want to salute you and show my appreciation as to what concerns your wonderful work on this blog.

Even though my comment is not related to this particular post, I have to say I follow the debates around here with a careful eye for some time now.

I am from the East of Europe, Romania, and I've come to know your country as a J.W.Fulbright scholar. While it's true that I have benefited immensely from the education received over there, in the same time topics around the current American economic system simply elude me.

This is, in fact, the reason that has drawn me to your blog, and I am very happy to have found here some marvelous answers, both from you and your readers. It is also this information that could help me develop a better understanding as to what concerns our own economical situation (even though not as bad as that of Greece).

I would also be curious to know your metaphysical definition of money as a vector of progress, in just a few words. In my work as a writer I also try to develop a definition of my own, even though its current phase is rather incipient.

Again, thank you so much for your time and dedication. Hope my English is understandable.

5/30/10, 5:02 AM

Frater Arjuna said...
This was an interesting article with lots of good comments. We've been on both sides of the equation -- for the first 10 years of marriage both my wife and I worked. Then before our daughter was born, my wife quit work and stayed home for the next decade.

However, now that our daughter's older and more self-sufficient, my wife is transitioning back to work in a new career teaching high school journalism. So we're going back to being a two-income household. For us, the numbers work out and, significantly, we both find a great deal of fulfillment in our work. She really likes teaching and finds education to be a tremendously worthwhile mission, and I have a law practice that allows me to do meaningful work for my clients.

So there are other factors to take into consideration and while a one-income household certainly has advantages, it's not necessarily a fit for everyone.

7/10/10, 6:09 AM