Sunday, February 15, 2009

Transitioning to a Better State of Crisis

I've been having a lot of conversations lately about the financial crisis; about how it will affect people, whether it spells the end of capitalism as we know it, whether the stimulus packages in the US, Australia, etc etc will help, whether it's a good thing if they help or if they'll just be propping up a destructive system.

One of my hopes is that people will take this opportunity to start transitioning to a new system. All of that money (and research, and effort) going into 'stimulating the economy' could, perhaps, more fruitfully be spent on transitioning to a more equitable, sustainable, and beautiful system. (ClubOrlov has a similar idea, although they frame it more as a way to survive the coming collapse of the US.)

The area that first springs to mind for me is the food system, both because of my research and because I've just been to Cuba and have been reading a bit about their transition to more sustainable agriculture during the 'special period'. Local food production, particularly if it preserves crop biodiversity and isn't based on petrochemical, gives communities a lot of resilience in the face of crisis.

ClubOrlov argues for focusing efforts on three areas as well as food: shelter, transportation, and security, and gives some thoughtful suggestions on how to restructure these areas, drawing on the experiences of the post-Soviet era. We could also think of other areas that might be worth attention: for me, access to the vast store of online information on everything from organic gardening to alternative accommodation would be important to preserve. Community mesh networks might be one way to ensure that people had access to this resource. Our approach to energy will also be vital: shifting to renewable energy sources is part of this, part it may also be necessary to rethink what we're willing to expend energy on (how much do we need plasma TVs and SUVs?)

I'm not arguing that we adopt all of ClubOrlov's suggestions (some of which sound quite mad), and basing our society on the post-Soviet situation seems like a depressing prospect. I do, however, think thatwe should engage in debates about other ways to organise our society, and think creatively about how to provide for our needs and desires. Since we're putting so much effort into this, we may as well aim for something better rather than simply treading water.


  1. You raise an important issue in this post, Sky, and I would like to suggest some additional resources that may be of interest:
    * a documentary entitled “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” - here is a link to an article about it:
    * the concept of “Transition Towns”, which initially arose as a result of people worrying about 'peak oil' and climate change, and which the current financial crisis has added urgency to:
    * the concept of “Sustainable Cities”: – I found the example of Curitiba (in Brazil) quite good as it involves large-scale community change (which was, however, government-supported... so I'm not sure if it's feasible without such support): and

    I also have a few comments to make about Dmitri's (ClubOrlov's) blog. I agree with you that some of Dmitri's suggestions seem rather far-fetched at the moment - though who can tell how serious things may get in future to make them seem less so? Especially scary is the idea of landing up having to survive in a society where one has to hire the services of 'freelance policemen' and former soldiers and prisoners for 'security'. The point is not to let things get to that stage of being caught up in a 'Mad Max'-type madness in the first place... which is why people would do well to start working towards building an alternative sort of society that works better; and to be fair, this is exactly what Dmitri's main message is too.

    However, I did think that much of what Dmitri writes in this blog is worth thinking about – especially the idea that people should neither wait for nor expect official government support, which is unlikely to eventuate (and is, rather, likely to be actively discouraged), to change their lifestyles and their communities:
    “How difficult would this be to organize? Well, Cubans were actually helped by their government, but the Russians managed to do it in more or less in spite of the Soviet bureaucrats, and so we might be able to do it in spite of the American ones. The government could theoretically head up such an effort, purely hypothetically speaking, of course, because I see no evidence that such an effort is being considered. For our fearless national leaders, such initiatives are too low-level: if they stimulate the economy and get the banks lending again, the potatoes will simply grow themselves. All they need to do is print some more money, right?” (

    I also think some of Dmitri's suggested solutions would be quite fun, e.g. the suggestion that “...freight companies.. [could] provide a few empty box cars for the hobos. The energy cost of the additional weight is negligible, the hobos don’t require stops because they can jump on and off, and only a couple of cars per train would ever be needed, because hobos are almost infinitely compressible, and can even ride on the roof if needed” - and this classic made me laugh out loud: “If I had a donkey, I would feed it the Wall Street Journal” (

    My final comment is that it is great to be able to approach such a serious and potentially depressing issue with humour, as Dmitri does, and I recommend his blog to all your readers.

  2. Thanks, 'Anonymous' - I agree both that Dmitri's blog is well worth reading, and that it makes sense to start transitioning to a new system ourselves, rather than waiting for someone else to do it for us.

    Thank you also for all of the extra links!

  3. I was just reading that Orlov article you linked to earlier today - someone else passed it on to me a couple of days ago. Clearly if I looked at the bluestockings blog more often I would have known about it earlier! Like you, I found it interesting but disagree with some of the conclusions.


  4. I'm curious about which of the conclusions you disagree with, specifically.

    I'm also interested in whether, should the US collapse (which I'm not at all certain that it will), Australia will be in a similar position.