This is Part 2 of a conversation with Shaun Chamberlin (Part 1 is here). Shaun left the board of the Ecological Land Co-op as I joined. He’s been involved with the Transition Network – he wrote the Transition Timeline. His website is Dark Optimism. He took on the work of David Fleming after his death, and produced the wonderful ‘Lean Logic: a dictionary for the future and how to survive it’.
This is an overview of our conversation (more detail in the video).
You mentioned growth earlier. Can we continue to have global GDP growth? Growth has lifted a lot of people out of poverty, and improved a lot of people’s lives. But have we reached the limit? Is nature now telling us to stop growing?
Yes. It’s strange that scientists studying the non-human world on this planet are telling us that it’s collapsing under the weight of our economy, but then we’re supposed to cheer when we hear that our economy is growing faster. On the other hand, what I find interesting about David Fleming’s work is that he says it’s easy for people who’ve lived their whole lives in a period of growth to not realise what it’s done for them. We’re in a dilemma. Either we stop growing and collapse the economy on which we depend, or we keep growing and collapse the ecology on which we depend. There’s no nice, easy answer. We can’t just stop growing and expect everything to continue normally.
And degrowth isn’t a word you can use with Africans, for example. Some parts of the world need to grow, while other, overconsuming parts of the world need to shrink.
Growth is such a nebulous term. It’s not a bad thing if we’re talking about our children or our gardens. But you’re talking about GDP growth. David Fleming said it’s better not to focus on degrowing the current economy, but in growing the new economy to replace it – an economy of friendship, community, family, music, play, conviviality. These are the things that are being sqeezed out, because there’s no room for anything but money. Let’s build those things – he looked at how societies sustained themselves before the current growth economy of the last couple of hundred years. It was through culture and conviviality. In a lot of places in medieval Europe, holidays amounted to around 5 months per year. We find that surprising in an era where machines have taken on a lot of labour for us, and yet we’re working much longer hours than in the middle ages. Those holidays weren’t laziness – they were times for culture – for carnival and connection, and the things that kept people and communities together – that our current economy has pushed out. These things are not just quaint anachronisms – they’re what create real economies and a future worth surviving.
But what about the infrastructure? Sure, we need to change human interactions and behaviour, but what kind of infrastructure do we need? We still need to produce things, to provide things for ourselves. How can we produce things via infrastructure that doesn’t have a growth imperative (so that we can live in harmony with ecology) and that doesn’t concentrate wealth (so that we can have real democracy).
We have to ask ourselves – in a sustainable, democratic world, what would feeding and housing ourselves look like? David Fleming looked at the scale of the infrastructure necessary to support ourselves in a constantly-growing economy, and argues that a lot of it becomes unnecessary if we can extract ourselves from that mindset. But yes, we need to move from extractive, unsustainable infrastructure.
Jonathan Porritt wrote the foreword to Lean Logic. He also wrote Capitalism as if the World Mattered. He understands that we can’t have perpetual growth on a finite planet. But he wants to reform capitalism rather than build something to replace it. I don’t know how you would take the growth imperative out of capitalism. All capitalists want a return on their investments, and if a majority don’t get it, capitalism falls into recession. We can’t stabilise capitalism, can we – so we need to transition to something else – to transcend, if you like – don’t we?
Yes – depending on how you define capitalism. Jonathan came to a launch event. He was a friend of David’s and they had many rows about this point. Jonathan would be asking how we make this system more sustainable, and David would be thinking – OK, maybe we could do with some mitigation work, but ultimately, how can we prepare for the collapse (i.e. the end of the current system) that we’re headed towards?
The mitigation work could buy us some time, maybe?
David said that even that may not be true – because the longer this system continues, the more ecology will be damaged, meaning that there will be less to sustain us when the inevitable collapse comes. Plus mitigation in this system may breed complacency that it can be maintained indefinitely. It may be better for the collapse to come sooner rather than later, in other words.
In this clip, Jonathan says that in conversation with David, he would talk about how we might make this system more sustainable, while at the same time, David was talking about how we can prepare ourselves for the end of this system. David grasped the nettle and was willing to face up to what the data tells us is happening.
I’ve heard that you’re going to start a community in Ireland. Are you going to live without technology as much as you can? What will that look like?
My best friend is Mark Boyle, the ‘Moneyless Man’. When we met, he’d been living without money for a year. I read his book and loved it. Mark saw that almost everyone he knew who was doing something they didn’t believe in, was doing it for money – so what would happen if he gave up money? He lived in a caravan on a farm for free. After a year, he was very happy, but realised it wasn’t the solution if he was alone. So we started talking about setting up a moneyless community. We thought we might do it via the Ecological Land Co-op, but then he found 3 acres in Ireland, where he’s from, and bought it – ironically with money earned from the book. It seemed like an appropriate thing to do with that money – to use it to purchase a place where people could come to live in the spirit of the gift economy.
On that land there’s a moneyless pub called the Happy Pig, and a bunkhouse where people can stay for free. People don’t have to sell themselves in a marketplace just to exist. ‘Happy Pig’ is from Socrates – who asked ‘would you rather be Socrates permanently depressed, or a pig permanently happy?’ (he’d rather have been Socrates depressed).
Mark built himself a cabin, and decided to give up electricity (because he couldn’t see a way to even build solar panels sustainably). He has a spring nearby, so has been living without electricity or running water. There’s also a traditional Irish farmhouse, and now six of us have taken it into a shared-ownership model. We see it as taking the land out of slavery, rather than an investment. We’ll never see any return for it.
I’m quite nomadic (although I don’t fly or drive), so I won’t be living there full-time. But there’s room for me to stay, and I can cut wood to keep warm in winter, and there’s electricity in the farmhouse too. So my life there will be low-tech but not electricity free, like Mark. People living there can decide how much tech they use, but it helps answer the questions about how we might live without some of the things that are destroying our life-support systems.
Another resident has a YouTube channel that explores wilderness survival skills and low-tech living (an interesting contradiction!). He’s built himself a stone-age dwelling.
The aim is to create a bastion of the moneyless economy and low-tech or no-tech ways of life. The people who come will dictate what that looks like in practice. I see it as rekindling the ancient Irish tradition of hospitality. If someone turns up, you give them food and somewhere to sleep. It’s not new – it’s an old tradition that’s been forgotten.
Mark says that techno-utopians warn us not to romanticise the past – and he agrees with that. But he believes that it’s far more dangerous to romanticise the future.
I used to live in an intentional community, and I loved it – but got frustrated because so much energy was needed to run the community, do the jobs, maintain relationships – not enough energy was left over to look at wider change. And I was worried that unless we challenge centralised power, at some point that centralised power could come along and say ‘this is our land now’. Are you not scared that the community will sap your energy to look at the bigger picture, or that your hold on the land won’t be secure in the long run, as long as centralised power still exists?
We haven’t found that our energy has been sapped. I came from the Ecological Land Co-op, where the model is to allow people to have their individual smallholdings, with very close neighbours – rather than all living together. At the Happy Pig, there’s a feeling of support. Obtaining the land and making initial agreements was time-consuming, however. We’ve bought the land, so we’ve asserted rights over it within the current dominant system. I’ve lived in and around squats before, which is draining, because you create something beautiful that’s taken away and destroyed. We can’t ensure that we remain safe from the powers that be forever, but one of the most inspiring things I’ve heard in a while was a recent talk about The ZAD in France – a 4000-acre area designated for an international airport. With huge local support, people have squatted the land to prevent the airport. The government sent in tanks, but they weren’t successful – the people are still there, and the government have backed down and allowed them to stay there.
In Ireland, we’ve secured the land by buying it – but in the future, I’m not sure that money is going to be a secure way of owning things. We’ve been trained to think of savings and pensions as the way to obtain security – but ultimately, security will be based on relationships and nature. I see our security as based on the relationships we’re developing with the neighbours, and mutual support and defence.
I agree completely. As you know, mutual credit has been my focus for a few years now. I don’t see it as money. I see it as a type of moneyless trading – it’s just numbers in accounts, rather than money as a thing you can hold in your hand. Is mutual credit ‘moneyless’ in your book. Could you see mutual credit accounts being used at the Happy Pig?
I could see myself having a mutual credit account, and in terms of the theory, I think it’s a lot of the way there. It gets rid of all the huge gambling schemes that are an intrinsic part of the money system. Plus money’s value is being inflated away all the time, and mutual credit doesn’t have that, so it’s an immense improvement. I’d say it’s not as radical as a full gift economy, where you don’t even keep tallies – you do it for love; exchange is grounded in relationships that aren’t quantified.
I’d actually call that informal mutual credit. People keep account in their head, rather than in a notebook, or digitally.
Yes, I think there is an informal, rough tally going on in all social relationships. But it’s not quite a tally in the gift economy, and I want to get away from that thinking. It’s the same with the term ‘spending time’ – I want to train myself out of that phrase, because time isn’t money – it’s always there. It’s not something you can speed up or slow down.
And you don’t keep tallies with family.
Right. The idea that I have a rough tally with my mum is absurd. I’m talking about something fundamentally different, not founded in maths, but in love.
I guess if you want some plumbing work done, and none of your close circle do plumbing work, but there’s a plumber in your community that you don’t know too closely, then I guess you’d have to keep a tally.
Exactly. David Fleming talked about different scales, from a close in-group using a gift economy, to the community where you might give time, work or money, but would expect it back, and then a city scale where payment is required up front. We keep a tally more and more the further we get from our inner circle.
And you’d have a different relationship with people and businesses in your community who are keeping the wealth in your community, rather than extracting it to pay shareholders.
I’d like to see a Happy Pig in every community, operating on a gift-economy basis – but then if people want to obtain something from someone outside their community, if there was a mutual credit system to deal with that, that would be fantastic. I think they’re completely compatible. But at the immediate, local level, I think we could be even more radical than mutual credit.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Happy Pig and a mutual credit club in every community?
Where can people keep up to speed with what you’re up to?
My website – Dark Optimism; and I’m on Twitter. The courses are the big thing I’m working on at the moment. There’s an asynchronous course called ‘The Path Through Tumultuous Times’ that people can take any time they want, and do at their own speed. There’s also an 8-week course we call the ‘Deeper Dive’ where we take a group of around 50 people, and forge meaningful relationships with some of the most compelling thinkers and doers around today. The next Deeper Dive is starting on Jan 31. We run them annually, each winter. If people have more questions, they can contact me via my website or via Twitter.
Great talking with you Shaun.
You too. I shared Lowimpact.org with a colleague in America, who’d never come across it before, and she was amazed – said it was the thing she’d been looking for, and she was going to share it with everyone she knows.
Good to hear!
- It’s strange that scientists studying the non-human world on this planet are telling us that it’s collapsing under the weight of our economy, but then we’re supposed to cheer when we hear that our economy is growing faster.
- It’s better not to focus on degrowing the current economy, but in growing the new economy to replace it.
- We’ve been trained to think of savings and pensions as the way to obtain security – but ultimately, security will be based on relationships and nature.
NB: You can join Shaun’s course here: ‘Surviving the Future – conversations for our time’
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's