David Fleming’s ‘Lean Logic’ and ‘Surviving the Future’, and why they’re important

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Posted Sep 23 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

I attended the launch of two books at Daunt Bookshop in Chelsea on Wednesday evening. David Fleming died in 2010, and now his friend Shaun Chamberlin has edited his magnum opusLean Logic, and Chelsea Green have published it. Magnum it certainly is, at over 600 pages (which apparently Fleming worked on for over 30 years), and unusually it’s presented in dictionary format. It’s a book that can be dipped into, or read from cover to cover if you don’t want to miss anything. Shaun has condensed a lot of Fleming’s ideas into the much-shorter Surviving the Future, which is meant to be read from cover to cover as with most books. This I have duly done – Shaun sent me uncorrected proofs of both books several weeks ago. He also sent me a little booklet by Fleming on nuclear energy – the importance of which I’ll go into below.

During his talk at the launch, Shaun said that Lean Logic could be considered a ‘toilet book’, which sounds a bit rude, but he meant that it can be dipped into when you have a some leisure time – i.e. in the bath or on the loo. It’s worth dipping into – I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it might become a classic, albeit one that it’s difficult to say is ‘about’ anything. It’s about everything. If you’re ever involved in discussions about anarchism, money, growth, genetic modification, ecology, defence, spirituality or usury, dip into it to see what David Fleming had to say on the subject – you’re bound to be enlightened.

It’s a book that feels like a website – there are lots of links to other entries in the book, but you can’t click on them (because it’s a book), which prevents the ‘curse of Wikipedia’ from delivering you to pages that don’t remind you at all of why you started clicking in the first place. But the dictionary format works – it doesn’t matter whether you dip in until you’ve read it all, or if you read it through from cover to cover – it’s about a new lean world. There is no beginning or end point, nowhere to obviously start or finish.

OK, it is about something – it’s about where we might end up if we (as in humans) continue on the path that we’re currently on, and what the alternative might be if we’re clever. He loves certain things that are only marginally connected to the main theme, however – like his guide to logical argument. In fact his guide is less about logical argument than how to use logical fallacies to cheat in an argument. There’s a whole section devoted to it, in fact, and it’s a theme that recurs throughout the book. Its aim is to help the reader recognise logical fallacies when s/he comes across them – and they’re hugely entertaining.

He outlines a couple of important themes in history too, in ways I’ve never thought of before – one via a scarcity of firewood, the other via a scarcity of water. The former explains how lack of firewood for small farmers led inexorably to the development of coal, steam engines, factories and oil that hugely increased everyone’s workload, and developed modern economies, with problems that could lead to the destruction of ecology, nuclear war and human extinction – much bigger problems than a shortage of firewood, the solution to which could just have been planting more trees and wearing more layers for a while. The latter is an explanation of why Europe came to dominate the world – because it has always had regular and plentiful rainfall, which means that central authority is dispensable, as it doesn’t need to control centralised, complicated irrigation systems to ensure everyone’s survival. This allowed freedoms that weren’t possible in ‘hydraulic’ societies, like China’s, including individualism, entrepreneurship and voyages of discovery (and conquest).

His basic premises

Society is descending inexorably towards collapse. In our everyday lives, this is difficult to see, but the huge loss of soil, the damage to ecosystems, the rapidly increasing human population in a world of diminishing resources, the growth in weaponry, the resistance of bugs to antibiotics and the rise of fundamentalism of different sorts points to a perfect storm that could be terminal. His solution is lean- or slack-ness.

Slack / lean economics is what we should be aiming for if we want to live sustainably. In fact, if we want to continue to live as a species, it has to (of course) be sustainably, by definition. For that to happen, the way we organise our economies has to be: based on trust; more leisurely; local; low-input and output; closed-loop; non-extractive and small-scale.

Not only do I endorse his vision for how society could be, I’d like to help make it happen. It’s what humans evolved to be like, and it’s the only way we’re going to stop damaging ecology. Classical economics represents a very young idea that opposes nature – including human nature. The latter is inconvenient, but the former is suicidal.

People will again do things because of culture – everyone will be part of a local community in the way that we always have been, until recently. Rather than competing with other local people to make money, we will just fit into the local community and do something useful for it. We’ll trust other local people to do the same – trust that people want to be respected for being good at what they do. This will give us value, rather than numbers in a bank account. This may sound naïve, but it’s actually how people have lived for the vast majority of the time that humans have been on earth. This is what will ‘keep the peace’ (at the moment, it is consumption that keeps the peace – but current levels of consumption can’t be sustained).

The division between work and play will become blurred; there will be more spare time than now; and more carnivals. He puts a huge emphasis on carnival, in fact. The economy will be circular (again). All waste will be re-used – including human waste as compost. And small scale is essential for this. Small amounts of waste, sorted by lots of people for re-use in interesting work, rather than enormous quantities of waste that have to be transported to a centralised depot and sorted by just a few people who are doing pretty horrible work.

One of my favourite parts of the books is the ‘seven commandments of capitalism’, where he lists the seven dominant trade protocols underlying the modern economy, and how in fact, we should be doing the exact opposite of all of them. Highly entertaining, I’ll make this article shorter by saving this for a future one. But really, he’s just highlighting the insanity of an economy that is geared towards exports, rather than producing things for ourselves, and based on the impossible premise of perpetual growth.

Another favourite is where he trashes Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons – which is only a tragedy in an unlean economy. If commoners are communicating well at the local level, the commons won’t be exhausted by some individuals trying to pull a fast one.

Why Fleming was special

The lean economy is exactly what we need. I couldn’t be more certain of anything. We’re losing touch with each other, and being dominated by networks based on the accumulation of money. I advocate the lean economy instead – in fact, Lowimpact.org is one big advert for it. Fleming’s a bit of a guru in that respect, and here are a few reasons why.

At the beginning of the section on growth, he says that there are two relevant meanings of growth:

1. the natural development of an immature system or organism to maturity.

2. a pathology in which a mature system or organism continues to grow.

Now this is what I’ve been saying for years – in fact lots of things that he’s saying, I’ve been saying for years – just not in such a succinct and persuasive way. The current human economy is pathological. Of course it is – it’s cancerous. It’s the reason that we’re headed for collapse in the first place. There are no giant asteroids headed our way, or rogue black holes or alien invasions – it’s the human economy. Growth will stop, as he points out, either by accident or by design. I vote design. If nature sorts the problem out for us, she may inadvertently remove us along with the problem.

But he also points out that people are not ready to hear this – with good reason. Unless we have a lean economy in place, a transition to a non-growing economy would be a disaster for most people.

He slaughters sacred cows with ease, and shows me how I’ve thought and written things in the past that will lead up blind alleys without a tweak, or in some cases a complete re-think. He’s given me a few twinges of embarrassment so far, and I’m sure there will be more, the more I read.

He surprises: for example he (almost) praises hypocrisy – by saying that arguments should not be dismissed because of the deeds of the arguer. In fact he goes on to say that there’s no reason at all that people’s standards shouldn’t be much higher than their behaviour – it would be bizarre if they weren’t. He’d much rather the hypocrisy of the glutton (say), who advocates a restraint that he can’t achieve than the sincerity of the religious fundamentalist who follows through on her belief that people who think differently to her should be killed.

Neither left nor right

There are quotes in Lean Logic from right-wing commentators like Roger Scruton, and there’s plenty in the book to satisfy the right – like this quote from Adam Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest.

But he also envisages a world free from the grip of corporate power – straight from the left (and actually, from those on the right with any sense). But Smith is right – love for our fellow citizens is always, ultimately, self-love, because in our hearts we all know that everyone needs a village.

Neither side is going to win the left vs right battle, that I believe is now obsolete. That’s what Fleming means with his criticism of the ‘us and them’ approach, which I recoiled against at first, with my desire to fight the Empire. But at a deeper, more spiritual level than mine (I operate mainly on the political level), he’s right.

However, I think some of his barbs against Marxism are unnecessary, and a little inconsistent. He called the dialectic a logical fallacy. That’s fighting talk – that’s criticising someone’s god. We’re not going to have their support if we do that. Why lose audience, or worse, create opponents? I’d appeal to Marxists to overlook these little jibes – there’s plenty for the right to overlook, after all. What David Fleming is saying is important, and his critique of corporate capitalism no less scathing than that of Marxists. Let’s let go of ideological purity, and talk about a practical route to a lean economy – which may ultimately be the only option we have, other than extinction.

I’d ask the right to stay on board too. Fleming can’t be bracketed as left or right himself – he’s not an enemy. He’s against ‘green authoritarianism’, and sees environmental hazards as the kind of threat that totalitarian regimes need. In this, Fleming reminds me of Roger Scruton. Plus he admits that the lean economy, by its very nature, won’t involve tax – which needs a central authority. Plenty for the right to be pleased about, in other words.

It’s essential for a movement to avoid branding itself (or to actually be) either left or right, because if it does, it will find half the world in opposition to it instantly. The left will never achieve egalitarianism as long as wealth is concentrated in the corporate sector, and the right will never achieve true liberty because of the concentration of power in the corporate-state alliance that that wealth brings. Liberté, egalité, fraternité nails it, and for Lean Logic, especially fraternité.


I’d like to talk more about three aspects of lean thinking, and specifically, I have three questions:

  1. Can we prevent descent accelerating into collapse, and can we survive collapse?
  2. Can the current power structure be overcome or sidestepped to allow a lean economy?
  3. Was Fleming right that nuclear power can’t replace oil?

These are not rhetorical questions – I don’t have the answers. But here are some more thoughts about them.

Descent or collapse?

I think he’s right that the human economy needs to descend, rather than collapse – although we might not be able to avoid collapse, because of the problems, from soil erosion to population explosion, outlined above. The main problem for me is that nuclear power is back in fashion, and nuclear weapons, despite the nuclear proliferation treaty, are now possessed by countries such as Pakistan, Israel and, maybe soon, Saudi Arabia. Are they all going to be decommissioned safely as we descend / collapse? If not, then there has to be some uncertainty about our chances of survival; and if some people do survive, in a largely soil-less, radioactive world in which ecology doesn’t work properly any more, they might wish they hadn’t.

Even in descent, we’re going to have a lot of hungry people with guns. Then potentially, warlordism might prevent the development of lean communities. Fleming stresses the importance of ‘good manners’ in the lean transition – but warlords aren’t particularly famous for their good manners. Warlordism is simple – it doesn’t need you to understand complicated arguments or read large books. Scotland is strewn with 2000-year-old ‘brochs’ – little stone towers into which an entire village had to cram, and roll a large stone across the entrance, when bandits appeared over the horizon. The lean society may need to include brochs for a while, until we can (hopefully) neutralise the bandits.

Descent requires ordinary people to do things – and that’s problematic, because in my experience ordinary people aren’t very interested. You’re interested – but you’re not an ordinary person, are you?

The power structure

If we don’t take power away from the corporate-state alliance (and if nuclear doesn’t replace oil), we might slip back to feudalism rather than move forward to the lean economy. The corporate empire still controls (and manufactures) all the weaponry, which isn’t going to become useless overnight. They will still be able to reward mercenaries and they will still be able to spread propaganda – for a while at least, until they can consolidate their power within a new structure. They, and any other warlords who can manage it, will seize fiefdoms, and use the excuse of ‘protection’ as justification. Empires don’t just give up power. Capitalism could be a short historical excursion from feudalism, which we could well fall back to after the oil’s gone (assuming that nuclear can’t replace it and that we avoid extinction).

We need something to take power from them – which will require a strategy. I think that history also shows that violent, centralising revolutions don’t work, and parliamentary systems are controlled by the Empire and therefore can’t challenge it.

Preparation for the lean economy needs to be happening now, in the kinds of places that most people live in – Dudley, Dagenham, Doncaster and thousands of other towns with boarded-up High Streets. And it’s not – these are the places the Transition movement doesn’t reach. We sometimes think that the world in which people are thinking seriously about the future is less marginal than it actually is. The lean transition will require wealth and power to be spread more thinly, and for technology to be geared towards community and individual control – what Ivan Illich called ‘conviviality’. But genetic modification, nuclear power and nanotechnology are far from convivial – they are technologies that can only be controlled by the corporate sector. We have a lot of work to do to prepare for a lean world, and we’re only scratching the surface so far.

Can nuclear replace oil?

Fleming believed that nuclear is not a viable technology long-term, and that it won’t be able to replace oil, so that the corporate-controlled, growth-oriented economy won’t be able to be maintained. It will die of natural causes. But what if he’s wrong? His background is not in nuclear technology – in fact it’s not in science at all. There are extremely geeky people saying that although uranium may not last very long, thorium will take its place – and it can be produced more easily than Fleming thinks it can, from sea water. See http://energyfromthorium.com/2008/03/18/david-fleming-on-thorium/.

However, let’s imagine the nuclear ‘optimists’ are right – do they really have anything to be optimistic about? If nuclear can replace oil, it means that the growth economy will continue, the corporate sector will retain power, and the juggernaut will continue to trundle towards the edge of the cliff. The lean economy will be a fantasy. What I’m saying is that nuclear cannot save us, whether it is a viable technology or not. We need to hope that nuclear can’t replace oil, and that nuclear fusion is never developed, because those things will allow us to continue our destruction of ecology, which will sicken and eventually finish us.

I don’t have the expertise to know whether nuclear can continue to power the growth economy as the oil runs out – maybe nobody does. I’m going to research it some more, and I’m going to approach it with an open mind. Some, like Fleming, say it can’t, some say it can – but I’m saying that we shouldn’t – we should be wise enough to move towards a lean economy anyway. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening as long as money men are in control.

You can buy Lean Logic and Surviving the Future here.