We humans require a few things to survive. Food, shelter, warmth, water. As society has developed, there has been increasing layers of abstraction between our actions, and these core needs.
To service these needs, we’ve built static, unsustainable networks that rob us of accountability and agency over our own survival. For the past 6 weeks, I’ve been staying in a property made mostly of recycled materials. I’m completely disconnected from power and water mains, deep in the Australian bush. There’s no switch to turn on the heat, no pipes to remove my shit.
I can stay warm, clean and connected, but it takes work. It also acts as an example of how awareness of your resource cost can diminish it, and connect you better to your own survival.
Between the grid and a shack
In the city, there is infrastructure, the apex of thousands of years of civilisation. This gives me access to the stuff of survival. It charges my devices, connects me with others who can tend to my basic needs. It gives me running water to drink and bath in. In exchange, I perform tasks; I write, I talk, I shift data for entertainment and communication purposes. Thanks to the power of money, I do one thing, and I do it well. I then use the tokens I’ve earned to participate in a system that keeps me alive.
In the bush, we have three sets of water tanks. One higher than the whole property, that has 20,000 liters of water. This feeds three separate tanks, positioned at different heights. They use gravity and archimedic principles to feed water into different parts of the house. Depending on rainfall and usage, I need to top-up the tanks, and manage the supply to each. When it rains, I feel good, knowing the tanks are filling, saving me the effort.
In the city, my power costs as an individual will range from $500 to a $1,000 a year. This increases or decreases depending on how much I want to regulate my temperature. My ability to stay warm or cold is inevitably decided by my ability to produce value within the economy. In the bush, a few weeks ago, we chainsawed down 4 dead standing trees, each about 10 meters long. We sawed them into handspan lengths, and filled a trailer, drove it up the hill, and unloaded it. It took four trips to get all the wood. We stacked them higher than my head, and by the end of the day, I was so tired I could barely move. Every few days I chop enough to keep the fire burning a few days more. This was half a day’s work, for three people. I paid my friend $80 for his time. I estimate it’s about 8 weeks worth of wood (or warmth).
We have a kilowatt of solar panels. Through the day I make sure they track the sun’s arc, using pivots my father designed. When it is cloudy, I can run a generator into a battery bank, to make up the shortfall. We would spend perhaps $10 a week on petrol. We’re two people, who both work full time on our laptops, so our power needs are quite high.
The pulse of survival
When the sun is bright, we have power, when the clouds come they bring water. I’m not saving a fortune on bills, it would almost certainly be more cost and time effective to use the time writing, and then paying to participate in a network that provides power and water. But there comes a certain satisfaction from tending to your own needs so directly. A connection with my own survival which builds strength and confidence. I’m less scared of losing a client, because I can ‘keep the heat on’ through winter, with a chainsaw, an axe, and a trailer. With a few basic skills I can keep water flowing and computers glowing. It’s also turned me into a conservationist, driven by laziness. The abstract ‘turn off the lights’, in the city, becomes ‘conserve power because it’s cloudy and I could not be fucked going outside in the cold to run the generator.’
There’s many things I still need — gas for cooking, petrol for backup, penicillin, grain, alternative late night comedy — all these things keep me connected to society. As a way of distributing labour to maximise output, society works great, but at an individual level, we accept a lot of waste in our name. For constant access to power at the flick of a switch, we burn coal hot, for easy protein, we accept industrialised meat (conveyor belt slaughter houses). We accept these inefficiencies by spreading the blame across all participants in the system.
Connect to your survival
Distributed solar and water catchment, local food production, all these things, scaled intelligently, can connect us in a more meaningful way to our own survival. But the benefits of large scale systems can only be brought about by central organisation. And those efficiencies turn into profits for the system providers, not the participants. This disincentives us to find ways to conserve. Why put up a solar panel when middle men will charge you to access the grid that makes it stable?
But though we despise the middle men and rent seekers, someone must still lay the pipes and write the code, and they must have their pound of flesh. Another way to create these participatory systems is through public funding, with programs backed by government. However our governments are mostly funded by the providers of old, inefficient systems. Systems that are unilateral, inflexible, that bar any direct participation at an individual level with survival. They want you to flip burgers, sell mortgages, and then exchange tokens for survival. They want for them to produce and for you consume. A nuanced, smart network, with distributed energy and resource capture and allocation would take the power out of their hands, and put it back in yours.
So perhaps the third world, where the old networks aren’t so entrenched, will see this explosion in individual resource creation and distribution, and reap the rewards. They will build new networks, connecting individual’s labor capture, and form new, more fluid survival networks, where people once again connect with the things required to keep them alive.
The ideal systems are passive, participatory, with a low barrier to entry. Where people can create resource individually, and add to the shared networks. As more people contribute, automated, trustless systems provide fair allocation of the output. We conserve, preserve and produce, knowing that other participants do the same, with intelligent allocation meaning everyone gets back what they put in, buys the excess from the community, and reduces the strain on our already overloaded planet.