Who can afford artisan goods? For truly green businesses, we have to kick the money habit
Hi, how’s business? As an artisan working with wool, January and February are usually peak season for me, but this year they’ve been the worst months on my records, despite the big freeze.
I’m a ‘nomadic’ handweaver travelling the Celtic lands with my craft business on board an old motorhome. I put ‘nomadic’ in inverted commas because it sounds more romantic, free and choiceful than it is: although it *is* poetic to an extent, it is also very hard, very insecure, sometimes unsafe, and never that cheap. It was a liberating but slightly kamikaze choice I made from a position of feeling that, since for my increasing anxiety levels I needed the tranquility of my native rural habitat, I could see no other choice.
Here’s how it goes – you might recognise yourself:
I had tried pursuing a sensible career for a decade, as an employee. I had tried being a tenant for that long too. I had tried running a craft business to fund a household. I had tried living in the city. I had tried paying higher prices for greener lifestyle and consumption choices. I had tried making savings by consuming less and less (I was never profligate overall). I had tried keeping chickens to cut food costs. I had tried making time for the undug vegetable garden so as to feed myself more. I had tried maintaining my mammalian dependents on a shoestring. I had tried borrowing money to keep all of this going. I had tried borrowing more money to pay for the borrowed money to keep all of this going. But none of it was ultimately sustainable unless I climbed the career ladder towards management and away from the fulfilment of coalface teaching work, or unless I sold my craft to richer and richer folk. Both of those rubbed. I’m not sure either was really possible for the person that I am.
In other words, born landless, I couldn’t live rurally, well or healthily without chasing the money. Which is nuts, because generally more money doesn’t mean greater sustainability or wellness. In fact we’re told that the global richest 1% could have 175 times the carbon footprint of the world’s poorest 10% and Gross National Happiness reportedly decreases with wealth inequality, which is particularly stark in the UK.
I’ve come to think of money – potentially a neutral, helpful tool – as something I need to break my dependency on. That I might have become dependent upon it surprises me, as I was brought up below the breadline and never sought to accumulate capital. I believe in abundance. I get by. I inherited, and still hold, ideological beliefs along the lines of Schumacher College’s founder Satish Kumar’s incisive observation that ‘poverty is not the problem; wealth is the problem’.
And yet of course we all have skills, services and products to offer, and needs and wants to maintain. We all produce, and we all consume, and, unless 100% self-sufficient, we all have to exchange. So we tend to become dependent upon the means of exchange, currency, because it is our society’s principal tool for engaging in material exchange.
Artisans, artists, writers, musicians, and commitedly small-scale growers, producers and manufacturers know even before embarking on such a vocation that money is unlikely to be on our side (unless we are one of those extremely few who hit the statisitcally ever-rarer ‘big time’ and ‘sell out’). Many of us consciously or subconsciously choose social and environmental justice over wealth accumulation, knowing at least instinctively that the latter is at odds.
My travelling weaving business is at a crossroads: I have increased my sale prices to the extent that my peers find them increasingly hard to afford (and you can probably tell from my accent that most of my peers are culturally privileged middle class professionals); handweaving, like all craft, is so labour intensive that I am still earning well below the minimum wage; I limit costs by buying some imported yarn of unverifiable sustainability all the way from Peru; in my tiny mobile workshop I have no space for increased productivity via mechanisation (even if I agreed with it) or additional manpower. But my business must grow just for me to be able to stand still.
I don’t know whether steady state economies are possible in a world where growth and decay is a natural cycle, but I’m pretty sure that steady state economies are *not* possible when the means of exchange has a built-in locking mechanism for infinite growth. I’m talking about money creation as debt, at interest – which is >97% of all money in the world. Austerity policies are only an unfriendly government’s symptomatic reaction to this driving mechanism. Here’s the crux of the problem from a maker/producer’s point of view. (Its hard squeeze is perhaps also a reason why decent people vote for even the nastiest populism).
The principal monetary cost of production is the cost of labour. Humans do not pay (in money) for raw materials: we pay for the labour to extract and process them. In order to reduce these principal costs (this bit is key, so I’ll say it again: in order to reduce these principal costs), we mechanise, using cheaper, non-human energy. This energy is usually dirtier, since it usually involves fossil fuels, with actual or embodied burning of carbon. Alternatively and usually additionally, we outsource the labour to where costs of living are lower, because that makes the labour cheaper. Places with lower costs of living generally have poorer working conditions and, when they hurry to meet our industrial needs in order to meet their hunger needs (which are often a result of our own resource plundering activities there), they often have poorer environmental practices too. Consumers here do not pay for our negative environmental and social impacts there.
So making environmentally-friendly and labour-intensive goods out of ethically sourced materials that were similarly labour-intensive to produce results in a very expensive product. In current global economics, these ‘luxury’ or ‘novelty’ goods are only generally affordable to a richer community than one’s own. So my lovely peers knowingly buy cheap, environmentally and socially unsustainable petro-fibre clothes from another continent and I ship my local wool textiles to yet another continent to find that richer audience. And here’s the mechanism that drives honest consumers to seek bargains, and honest producers to seek cost reductions.
To start from the beginning: the Bank of England recognises that most people don’t understand money creation, and this document of theirs explains the world-prevalent, corporate, debt-based system of creating money at interest. (Study this if you’ve a few months or years to spare; otherwise check that my reference is legit and take my word for it from there. But vote for governor Mark Carney if ever you’ve chance, as making this material public on his watch makes me think that he’s a good’un.) This debt based money creation system has the following impact on our societies.
Prices must necessarily be higher than wages (in aggregate). This is due to the interest component on >97% of all money. Because >97% of all the money handled by individuals and companies is debt, all individuals and companies, regardless of their own actual borrowing, have to cover not just labour and embodied labour costs in production of their goods and services, but above and beyond have also to service the borrowed money, i.e. pay interest on loans. Prices being higher than wages means that there is not enough money to consume all the goods and services that we produce – scarcity is in-built. To sell our wares we must enagage in a constant battle of noveltising, undercutting, shortcutting and bargaining: we are economically compelled as producers to compete in ever more socially and environmentally unfriendly ways. If we want or need ordinary folk to afford our wares, we have to get things made or done more cheaply, which generally means replacing labour with mechanisation and/or outsourcing labour to places where working conditions, rights, pay and environmental practices are worse – which means that our local ordinary folk are further deprived of work, which means that they cannot afford our wares, which means that we have to get things made or done yet more cheaply… and so on.
This race to the bottom is a vortex: our current monetary system is driving capitalism to its extreme and wrecking life and the planet. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Wouldn’t it be different if you all could afford the fruits of my labour, and I yours. I’m aware of two approaches to addressing this.
One is that the debt/interest locking mechanism for infinite growth can be mitigated through measures designed by more intelligent and conscienscious governmental and global financial centre policies. This sometimes happens, but the complete solution would be if the locking mechanism were to be eliminated altogether. This would involve friendly governments being persuaded to bring positive money creation solely and routinely into public hands (which is what they do periodically when they conduct Quantitative Easing). It’s estimated that after approximately 30 years of such a sovereign money system, the gradual effects of wealth redistribution would be significant. This is not a new solution: there are successful historical and contemporary precedents around the world.
But do have we time to wait for our politicians and bankers, when even the best of them have limited agency in the structures that our societies have created over centuries? In any case, for a multi-pronged approach, I’d argue for taking the means of exchange back into our own hands, as per the famous Clause IV of the earlier UK Labour Party:
‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’
‘Saying that trade is difficult because there’s not enough money is like saying that building is difficult because there aren’t enough inches’. We all have needs and wants and we can all produce goods and services, even when the money has all been hoovered up. So let’s all get on with our business a long way away from the corporate moneymaker machine hellbent on its race to the bottom.
Makers, artists and economists are e-gathering in the Green Cloth Collective, an international network of professionals, activists and would-be producers who believe in making things closer to home for greater sustainability. We’re discussing the economic problems, challenges and possible solutions. At least for now, increased resilience is likely to involve breaking our dependency on money and developing strong networks and communities in which collaborative credit and gift economies can thrive, for the sake of people and planet.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1weavingtheseisles March 11th, 2018
Thanks very much for publishing this. Such a crucial debate I think.
2Mike Eaton March 11th, 2018
Very well put Eloise however to my mind sadly, in order to survive we must, to a certain extent enter the “enemies camp” and use their system as it is at the moment, but how far are we to go with this? That sadly is for each individual to decide for themselves. Whilst “making a living” we can of course strive for a better way of existence. In the first instance we should all get together both physically and electrically (on line) to discuss and plan this better way forward. Such places as the ‘Green Cloth Collective’ (and other Communities) are a good starting point for many of us as they do at least have a common point to start with. It will I fear be a long road to stumble along but at least as one very famous person said in the past (Mao) “a journey of a thousand miles starts with th first step” thanks to Eliose and others I believe we have actually started that journey and the trickle of people involved will soon turn to a flood, let us hope it is not to far in the future!
3Bambi March 11th, 2018
Rustic woodwork is an element of my living, like most craft workers the satisfaction that I get from doing my craft is part of my reward, like many I still need access to money ( however much I would like to kick the habit!) At the moment I sell some of my work for high prices, I am fortunate to be able to provide courses at very low cost or free which enables a lot of local people to make their own chairs and stools etc. This sits quite well with me as I think that taking as much money as possible away from rich people is a good thing as is empowering and working with my local community. Now the tricky bit, I would like to spend more of my time making things and growing food, I am fortunate in that I have access to land but time becomes the problem, also if I increase the volume of my production how do I find enough rich people to relieve of some of their money? This is a bit rambling and I don’t claim to have any answers but I am happy to see this discussion going on and keen to see more craft work become available to non rich people.
4Theresa Munson March 11th, 2018
Eloise your products are beautiful. Maybe you should have a flexible charging system, so that those who can afford it pay slightly more. Like the difference between basic ranges and high end in supermarkets – probably the same product just different labelling/packaging. I knew someone who was a turner. If he sold his work in galleries, he’d get twice as much as he would at a craft fair.
5weavingtheseisles March 11th, 2018
Thanks very much Theresa. Yes, I do wonder about a Robin Hood dual pricing system. It wouldn’t change the world, but at least it might help my own micro-economy. Many of my customers pay in instalments, which is heartening, ie. they’re not so affluent that they can easily afford but they go to lengths because they value.
6Mike Eaton March 11th, 2018
Sounds an extremely good idea Theresa, just needs a little bit of refining so that it suits the seller and the buyer (at a guess if you go to a gallery you expect to pay more sort of thing, but how much more?). A mixture of barter and pennies may also work – “if I buy the thread can you make for me a . . . . . . . ” sort of thing?
7Hanneke Jones March 11th, 2018
Loved this very thought provoking piece, Eloise, as I have been enthralled by all your other writing, and I am going to have to reread. It is so good that you don’t only weave beautiful cloth, but also ideas, thoughts and movement. xxx
8weavingtheseisles March 11th, 2018
Thank you so much Han. It’s very dense isn’t it, I’m sorry that it takes a couple of readings, such complex subject matter. (I couldn’t tag Fran on Facebook; I’d love you to show it to him?) xxx
9Andrew Rollinson March 13th, 2018
This is nicely written. I can relate to it very much, as I am sure that many others can.
The question of “who can afford artisan goods” is not new. William Morris wrestled with this subject 150 years ago when he was producing beautiful things as part of the Arts and Crafts movement to counter what he described as “the mere inanities which are now called luxuries, or the poison and trash now called cheap wares”. He realised that the rich were his customers.
Obviously the situation has not changed, and has in fact moved on apace. It is impossible where I live to buy anything of quality, indeed anything that is not cheap, plastic and imported from China. This I think gives hope for artisans. I seek out artisan goods not only because I want to support independent craftspeople but because this is now the only place where I can get something that is of sufficient quality to last. However, I understand that I am in a minority because there is a vast workforce ensuring that the masses do not think this way.
The other thing is that the pleasure of having the time to create something has also been taken away with mass production (again recognized by Morris). This is another reason why artisan goods are better.
Anyway, thanks you Eloise and best wishes. I will be contacting you.
10roselle angwin March 13th, 2018
Excellent article, and well unpacked. Thank you.
Yes, it’s such a vicious circle, isn’t it?
It’s also not a healthy way for any individual and therefore a society to live: to live primarily to earn money. So few people genuinely seem to feel able to be truly proud of the work they do; to feel that it contributes to the greater good. The UK still has some of the longest working hours, too; and yes, most people are locked in to the system.
In terms of the sustainability that we so desperately need, it would be great if we could all focus on what a win/win situation for all humans and other-than-humans alike (including the planet in that) would look like and see what economic system might emerge from those principles.
I’m not sure where that would or could begin, but possibility a diversity of non-centralised movements like your Green Cloth Collective, and a wider awareness of the significance of low impact ideas and ideals is the obvious, or even only, starting place.
One thing is that we need to move away entirely from the concept of anyone or anything as a ‘resource’, in my view. That sets up an other-as-utility unconscious mechanism that maintains a hierarchy, and prohibits a ‘working-with’ and therefore true co-operation.
What has been important to me is the maxim of ‘how little do I need rather than how much’. If you try to sidestep the debt-based monetary system on which our economy depends, as I did within the counterculture’s ideology by not borrowing money, it does condemn you to a degree of marginalisation though that doesn’t appear to be as sustainable as it was in the 70s/80s/90s. However, there was also the definite benefit, for me, of not feeling I was ‘buying in’ either to a system I didn’t believe in or eg the trap, as I saw it, of a mortgage (‘grip of death’) or property maintenance costs, etc. As it got harder and harder to rent somewhere I wanted to live in, though, I realised I was still trapped, if only in ways that I could (sort of) choose.
But I loved the fact that for 14 years I was able to earn my living by bartering the shoes I made for basic stuff like firewood, furniture, pottery, clothes, even accountancy and mechanics’ fees, and because I needed less cash I could keep my off-the-peg prices reasonable. OK, I was below the breadline but at least not complicit in thievery and exploitation of people and planet, though I really struggled with using leather (as you know) and thereby exploiting animals. (At least in my current work I don’t have to compromise either humans or other-than-human others, though no-one really wants to barter books for anything sensible!)
But it seems to me that some kind of exchange that doesn’t involve money-as-debt is a necessary part of the way forward, and may have its own contribution to whatever a steady state economy might look like in the (hopefully not too distant) future.
All power to what you’re doing.
11Eloise Sentito March 13th, 2018
Thanks Mike, Bambi, Roselle, Andrew.
Mike: Yes, I agree that it won’t happen overnight and that meantime we have to keep compromising whilst growing the networks and alternatives alongside as fast as we can. The next big crash will give us another sharp shove (maybe even creating the conditions for the lotus to grow), so to reduce the pain of that, let’s be ready for it.
Bambi: Yes, what you say about charging properly (ie heavily) for your artefacts in order to be able to give (more or less) your skills makes good sense for one’s own micro-economy, thank you, I’ll bear that in mind for mine.
Andrew: Lovely, thank you. Morris comes up in all the best conversations, and though peripherally aware of him for twenty years, it is really time I studied him properly, and I will.
Roselle (and Bambi): Yes to all of that (lovely) bar one thing: just by using money at all we are alas 97% complicit, since 97% of it all is debt. However, I don’t like to use the word ‘complicit’, as one great thing that the understanding of the debt money analysis gives me is compassion for all our unsustainable (and sometimes even barbaric-seeming) actions and livelihoods: our ‘choices’ and attitudes are seriously compromised – even compelled – by the dynamic of the debt money vortex at the core of our economics. Even the so-called rich are subject to the stress of it. It’s almost impossible to resist as an individual, without, as you say, non-participation in mainstream society (which is surely likely to limit our positive impact in mainstream society, apart from being isolating and fraught in other ways). Let’s hope for the critical mass in collective action!
12dilgreen March 13th, 2018
As someone who struggled with various versions of these issues for the thirty years I designed and made, first furniture, and then buildings, my view is that we should be unashamed about charging high prices for high quality craft products.
If we subscribe to the labour theory of value, then these results of low-productivity but high-care, life-affirming engagement (in both the making and the use) are well worth it.
It is not the artisan’s ‘fault’ that the socio-economic system is set up the way it is and there is equally no way not to be at least partially complicit with it without retreating to a subsistence lifestyle as a hermit (and thus to irrelevance).
Of course, high prices tend to impact the conscience – these skills and products are not intended as high art or collector’s pieces; their beauty and character grows out of the fact that they are for use (artisans who forget this tend to end up making bad art that is of no use either, as I used to observe at the Crafts Council Gallery rather too often). Feeling, as we do, that the character of the work we make is life-affirming in ways that mass-production mostly is not, we are conflicted not to be able to offer these benefits to anyone who appreciates them.
But I would say again that craft production is not a cause of the manifold stupidities of the current system (it is rather the other way around, as craft production was actively and purposefully suppressed by early capitalists – people had to be deprived of their means of self-sufficiency to force them into the factories).
Neither, though, is artisanal production the solution; it would be madness to attempt to feed and clothe 7 billion people (10 billion within 30 years) with hand-made goods – we would destroy the biosphere even faster than we are, for the simple reason that craft making is much less productive. And those people aren’t going away, unless through unimaginable horror, which we must surely strive to avert (there is hope, and also an approach that really works, which will reverse this trend – increased emphasis on education of women – but even if universally adopted, these things operate over generational time).
The way forward, surely, is to practise the skills, maintain the culture, make the goods, keep the flame (and the beauty) alive: if we charge decent prices to those that can afford them, we will have energy and resources available to apply in the places that might divert the system from its headlong rush towards disaster [How much positive energy, creativity, productivity is sapped by poverty, by scrabbling to get by? What is the point of an untroubled conscience if we are operating at minimum effectiveness?].
In a severely dysfunctional society, at a time of impending crisis, to expect to get to do the work you love, and simultaneously to have an uncomplicated moral existence, is perhaps to wish for too much.
For myself, I’m in agreement with Eloise’ conclusion – developing new approaches to money systems that, of their nature, emphasise flow and the creation of human value over hoarding, excess consumption and accumulation is where my energy is going. Mutual credit currencies offer the prospect of democratising access to money – of taking it out of the hands of the state and into the hands of the people.
Freed from the bondage of money that must always be earnt by labour up-front, or borrowed at interest, people will increasingly spend on what satisfies their humanity, which previously went to servicing their debt repayments.
In this context, charging decent prices for craft products will no longer be accompanied by a pang of guilt.
13Eloise Sentito March 13th, 2018
[replies to others pending approval as WordPress failed to log me in under my own account, sorry]
I love this Dil Green, thank you. Agreed that it’s not the artisan’s fault, though as a citizen we have as much responsibility as anyone (barring perhaps banking execs, politicians and economists) to help change the economics in which we operate. ISince I’m not any of those, ‘m interested in how my makership can be both an act of resistance and of economic innovation in itself. I’m still not sure what I mean by this exactly, although it involves both as much ecological business management as I can muster, and raising the questions with anyone who’ll listen as I sell my wares. (NB I love my craft work but this is not why I do it, otherwise I’d choose musicianship; this is a pragmatic, economic compromise, er…)
Why do you say that clothing 7-10 billion people with handmade goods would destroy the biosphere (especially if many more were clothing themselves)?
14Dave Darby March 13th, 2018
Dil – agree with all that, apart from the bit that confused Eloise – ‘it would be madness to attempt to feed and clothe 7 billion people (10 billion within 30 years) with hand-made goods – we would destroy the biosphere even faster than we are, for the simple reason that craft making is much less productive.’
I’m also confused. So scenario 1:
I buy a high-quality jumper that will last me 30 years, made by a craftsperson, from organically-produced wool and dye plants in the UK, and transported a few miles.
Is less sustainable than scenario 2:
I buy a low-quality jumper that will last me one year (but I’m constantly pestered to buy more than one anyway), made by children in Vietnam, but with most of the money going to a multinational corporation, from chemically-grown fibres, mixed with plastics, dyed with toxins, then flown from the other side of the world?
How does that work?
And don’t start me on toxic monocultures vs organic smallholdings. The UN have already said that the only way that we will feed humanity is via the latter – http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf.
Also, If pushed – although I don’t like to think about this – I don’t think that there’s the slightest chance that the earth can maintain a human population of 10 billion; we’re on the way ‘biological annihilation’ (http://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/E6089) with 7 billion, let alone 10.
15Dave Darby March 13th, 2018
Roselle – loosely related to some of the things you’re saying (and entirely coincidentally, sent to me by Dil, above), have a look at this – http://new-pretender.com/2018/03/08/the-eu-cannot-be-democratised-heres-why/
Summary: back in the 70s, the extremely influential Trilateral Commission (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trilateral_Commission) reported on ways to move from Keynesianism to neoliberalism, by
1. giving independence to central banks (check)
2. moving sovereignty from national governments to neoliberal transnational institutions like NAFTA or the EU (check)
3. uniting currencies so that poor countries can’t devalue their currency to get any advantage over richer countries (check)
4. which will mean that austerity policies are the only option – especially for poor countries (check)
5. ensuring that there is plenty of bread and circuses, ensuring a compliant an apathetic population (check)
6. making sure there is never full employment – keep working people compliant by making sure that there’s a reserve army of unemployed ready to step into their jobs if they’re not (check)
This stuff was freely available in the 70s, but who knew, and who would have believed that it could have happened?
I think that the solidarity economy will grow (is growing) in the cracks in capitalism in the same way that capitalism grew in the cracks in feudalism. Who would have believed back then that more-or-less despised moneylenders and travelling merchants would rise to take power from monarchy, aristocracy and the church? But they did. Grit your teeth – we’re going to win this.
16dilgreen March 13th, 2018
Glad you found it interesting. I’ll try to clarify my meaning in response to your points.
Agree that we all have equal responsibility to be and make the change we wish to see.
I see craft making as an act of resistance just by by doing what it does; transform materials through the work of human body into individual things with dense human value (through overlaying of history, usage, skill, attention, time, creativity, prospect, purpose …). This process in itself resists commodification; each item is unique in a way that means something, it has been produced with a commitment to a certain kind of attention, a certain minimum of love and care. this is antithetical to machine-culture production, in which each item is reduced, as far as possible, to an ideal form, identical to and interchangeable with each other from the same source. So no problem there, for me.
I find it harder to see craft production as economically innovative. After all, it has been the dominant mode of human production since the dawn of homo faber.
A sci-fi and futurist writer, Bruce Sterling, coined the phrase ‘the future composts the past’. It has some depth to it, but I’m not sure I believe it fully captures what happens as change occurs. I prefer my version; ‘The future frees the past’.
What I mean by this is that as technological and process innovation occurs, previous modes of operation which were at the leading edge, and thus carried much responsibility, are released from their burden, and freed to be what they do best, and no more.
As an example, consider books. Until a century ago, books were pretty much the only channel for the dissemination of human culture. Tools for thinking, for study, the basis for theatre, for music, for political thought, for scientific knowledge, for poetry, for art, for entertainment, for news. Since then various technologies – film, telephony, radio, television, the internet, mobile devices – have freed the book from this heavy burden. These days, we choose a book because we find it best suits us – and when it doesn’t, we choose something else. A book only has to be good at being a book, now.
Or again, horses. A century ago, the wonderful creatures were the only option for non human powered transport (and consequently much used and abused). Now it is mostly people who love horses who keep them, and they are generally very well cared for and suffer from under, rather than over-exercise.
From this perspective, you could say that artisanal production has been freed from its burden of being the only way one could address any material human need. It has been released from economic necessity, now generally considered a luxury, a category purchased with discretionary spending, rather than out of the weekly budget. Something we wish to preserve for its intrinsic value, rather than because it’s the only way we know how to make things.
If craft production is economically innovative, this is surely mostly clever resistance, as people who refuse to ‘get with the modern world’ are forced to think of wrinkles and clever schemes as they search for financial viability.
As to destroying the biosphere, just imagine having all blankets hand-woven, 1 per person. And all plates hand-thrown, one per person. And all shoes hand-made, a pair per person. And all jumpers hand-made, and all jewellery hand-made, and all doorknockers handmade. Lets say a few hundred million of each of these each year (a small subset of the list of necessaries – I’ve chosen only a few that a modern bourgeois might like having a craft version of – all cutlery, light-switches, cars, underwear, pans, bicycles, smartphones, tractors, hairbrushes etc etc are still mass-produced).
All the carders, spinners, weavers, all working away; they need food, they need clothes, they need shoes, shelter, warmth: they expect, these days, access to the internet, to electricity, to clean water, to metaled roads, to schools, hospitals, police stations, to organised government (and we want these things too). And they need this all the time they are producing these few hundred million blankets a year. As do the tanners, leather-workers, potters, knitters, jewellers, ironmongers…
So think how long it takes to card, spin, dye and weave one of your lovely blankets, in person-days; mutliply by a few hundred million, multiply by 6 to allow for those other few categories.
Say the average answer across these categories was 2 days. 200,000,000 x 6 x 2 = 2.4 billion person days. At 240 working days a year, this is 10 million people working full time, just to produce blankets, shoes, plates, jewellery, jumpers and doorknockers. Total world labour force is 3.4Bn. So we have just under 1/300 of the world labour force working on just six products.
Put another way, we could have a world inventory of around 2000 products if all were produced by craft techniques (this would have to include food as well). And no teachers, police, government officials, shop-keepers, road-sweepers, writers, musicians, web-designers…
Tesco alone has 90,000 product lines. I’m sure we both agree that that number is ridiculous – but even if we cut it by 90% to 10,000, it would still be five times more than we could manage.
So it would either be back to the middle ages (which would also destroy the biosphere – a billion households burning wood would destroy all the forests, and the atmosphere, too, in short order), or have everyone else working overtime in even more extractive (and soul destroying) ways to keep our artisans alive – wrecking the biosphere. Now that might be a reason for a guilty conscience! There is a reason that craft revivals generally take place among middle class people in affluent countries.
This is why I have given up on being an architect. I saw a postcard of some beautiful mud huts, somewhere in Africa. Each was decorated with beautiful geometric patterns in red and white earth – all different, all striking. Beauty, deep beauty, takes time, I realised. Not necessarily time in the making, even. Time thinking, time to care, time to decide, time to renovate. And I looked at homeless figures, and population growth, and realised that my approach was economic nonsense (and not capitalist economics – just basic human production nonsense). The world will need to house a billion new people in each of the next three decades.
So I realised that, for me at least, there was insufficent effectiveness in my craft (I can’t bear working for the super-rich, and can’t bear to see all that I know to be decent and good about slow, careful building traduced).
I have decided to work at whatever it is that I believe will bring us closer to a socio-economic setup that doesn’t inevitably lead us further into the abyss. At the moment, that seems like; mutual credit, a decentralised (uncontrollable) internet, devolution of nation states to bio-regions, human-centric artificial intelligence, smart electricity grids based on distributed micro-production.
And buying as little as possible that is new / corporate.
Perhaps, with luck, one day there might be sustainable, labour-free ways of producing enough basics so that anyone who wants can have a productive time making beautiful things, taking as long as they want, adding to the general beautification and commonwealth of humanity [Iain M Banks’s Culture series, but perhaps without faster-than-light travel].
The road from here to there is mostly about enormous evolution in socio-economic patterns, which will be enabled in the near future, at least, by the new possibilities afforded us by digital technology.
But this doesn’t mean that I decry craft skills, modes, approaches. Preserving these as living tradition is important for all sorts of reasons. So I have no problem with people charging decent prices and being decently rewarded.
Blimey, that got a bit long. You did ask…
17Dave Darby March 14th, 2018
Dil: wow, this is a massive and fascinating question. You say ‘mutual credit, a decentralised (uncontrollable) internet, devolution of nation states to bio-regions, human-centric artificial intelligence, smart electricity grids based on distributed micro-production.’ and I say great, let’s do it.
But I completely disagree with your analysis of craft production. We can choose the best of all ages, surely? Give me a thatched cottage over a steel and glass building any day, or a wood stove for warmth (from sustainably-managed ‘commons’ forests – didn’t we say that Garrett Harding was wrong? And then the carbon produced by burning will be absorbed by growing trees – it will only be releasing what nature has just produced – unlike fossil fuels), as well as locally-produced organic food and craft goods. Those things don’t have to be superceded.
But also, give me a (co-operatively produced – it’s already happening in Asia) laptop with internet access (via the phone co-op, obviously), powered by solar panels on my roof. And mutual credit is the oldest exchange system there is – although yes, of course, let’s digitise it. But If something is invented, I don’t have to use it just because it’s new.
Craft production isn’t a luxury for wealthy societies – it’s always been the basis of (now) poor societies that are destroyed by capitalism, starting with hut taxes and plantations and moving on to land grabs and structural adjustment policies.
‘Craft’ food production is the only way we will feed a growing population without destroying the soil.
One hand-crafted, repairable jumper (or chair, pair of boots, leather bag etc.) that lasts someone a lifetime has far less of an ecological impact than the multitude of poor-quality, machine produced goods that we are persuaded constantly to replace because they’re out of fashion.
But these are details. We’ll see how much of a technocentric future we can have when the oil’s gone I suppose. What’s the alternative – renewables won’t support the current level of economic activity (fortunately) – so nuclear? That can only be controlled by centralised power – corporate or state or a combination of the two. That’s really dangerous – plus can you honestly say that on our current trajectory, we’re not going to experience an ecological and therefore economic crash like never before, relatively soon? What happens to nuclear power stations then? There are about 500 of them around the world, with lots more coming – if they’re abandoned, they’ll pose the biggest global threat to human survival.
But, much more importantly, if the current size of the global economy and population has resulted in a 1.7-planet footprint for humans, how big is that footprint going to be with 10 billion, all wanting a US-level of consumption? The biosphere isn’t going to allow that, so the more people learn how to provide for our needs locally, using hand tools, the longer we’ll put off, and the more of us will survive the crash that we’re clearly not going to avoid (imho).
18Eloise Sentito March 14th, 2018
Fantastic, thank you Dil and Dave, keep going, hugely helpful. So specialisation has huge cultural advantages; double-edged economic ones; and severe social and environmental disadvantages…? (Or is double-edged in all three cases, perhaps?) Remember (as I know Roselle would say, drawing on island culture as reference), that we craftspeople can also fulfil some other functions in society alongside, be it food growing, firefighting and such…
19dilgreen March 14th, 2018
In terms of practical action, of what to do, I’m more interested, always, in the ‘here and now’; what ‘is’, than I am in what ‘ought to be’, or what ‘might be’.
However, it is of critical importance that one’s decisions, in the here and now, are informed by as much understanding as one can glean about what ‘is’, as much ethical consideration as one has time for about what ‘ought to be’, and as much investigation as one has time for as to what ‘might be’.
I spend a great deal of time on ‘is’, ‘ought’ and ‘might be’ investigations. But in the end I have to decide what I will do *today*.
How to make a choice as to action which has the greatest chance to move us towards better ‘might be’s, judged against a yardstick of ‘oughts’ – but as firmly seated in ‘is’ as possible.
Utopia has been my goal ever since I was properly conscious, but I’ve seen too much time, optimism, resources and goodwill wasted on projects disconnected from reality to be convinced by ‘surely…’ arguments. Of course I prefer the tings you mention, Dave; I just don’t believe that they will save us. We might want to end up with that sort of life, but we have a century to survive before we can aspire to that sort of simplicity and stability.
I want to test things, want them to be at least a little believable.
The 200 million jumpers a year figure I used works out at one (and you’ll only have one) jumper per person per 35 years, for 7 billion people. No labour was factored in for repair work, so you’ll be doing that yourself, after work, when you could be reading, or writing, or making music. And repairing your shoes, your blanket, your plate, your jewellery and your doorknocker, because you won’t be getting a new one of those anytime soon either.
I am highly engaged in speculative thought, in positive design, in planning routes to a world with an ideal number of humans on it. It informs my decisions about where my energy goes.
But as I said in the first comment, we have 7 billion; we’re on the road to 10 billion. There is nothing, short of tricking T. Ronald Dump into pressing the big red button, that any of us can do about that. Climate change is real – there is nothing beyond slamming the brakes on that any of us can do about that – even if we went zero carbon tomorrow we’re in for significant changes.
These are the two most salient facts about human existence on the planet, that will impact all of us, that will condition what is possible, what is worth striving for, for decades to come – and that we have no power over. The gears are already in motion.
To talk about less people is either to be talking about an imagined future – thinking about ‘ought’ and ‘might be’, so that we can make better decisions about ‘what to do next’ – vital activity; but which cannot change the ‘is’. Or, it is to live in fantasy land, or to contemplate, with some level of complacency, billions of humans dying horrible deaths. I refuse both of these options.
There may well be a devastating crash coming. But what do I want to do about that? Well the only thing I can live with is doing all I can to mitigate its impact – because what we mean by a crash, to say it again, is that people will suffer horribly (the rest of the biosphere might well rejoice – but I’m a human, and I don’t hate myself, or anyone else). Surely what we must work towards is a way for civilisation, and as many humans as possible, to survive this coming century? Not build castles in the air that can only work on the basis that 5 billion humans have died in misery?
So, given this terrifying reality – this ‘is’, this certainty about some fundamental, unstoppable engines that are already in motion, what, then do we do?
That’s where I’m coming from.
I don’t for an instant consider that my choice is certainly ‘the right thing’. It is just the best answer I can come up with, for me, right now.
I don’t for an instant think it would be good if everyone else made the same choice as to what to do as me.
It is of vital importance that all sorts of thoughtful and well-intentioned people make their own minds up, and that all sorts of different strands and directions and modes of action are pursued, so that, whatever happens, there is an increased chance that humanity is prepared.
I do hope, though, that conversations like this one contribute to clarity about the conditions which these approaches need to address.
And that by being honest and clear with each other, as this conversation so beautifully does, we will each be more confident and informed about the choices we make, and more able to collaborate, sympathise, co-operate and co-create – on the basis of understanding and trust in underlying dispositions, even if not in 100% agreement about particulars.
20Dave Darby March 14th, 2018
Dil – the craftspeople will do the repairing as well as the making. Why would they turn down another income stream?
But yes, spot on. I’m not disagreeing with your philosophy at all – I just think that ‘craft’ products and foods will play a bigger role in creating well-being and survival possibilities than you do – and maybe (probably) all the way down to bushcraft. We’ll see.
In the meantime I’m going to keep on promoting them, and you’re right, let’s work out what we can do right now. If mutual credit gets traction, for example, it would throw such a spanner in the works that we don’t know what opportunities will arise.
As far as I can see, the solidarity economy with a mutual credit system is our best hope. The left are finished – they’ve become the ‘liberal establishment’ versus a new-right populism, which is why they support state intervention, bank bailouts and the EU, and get their opinions from the Guardian. We’re wasting our time waiting for the state to do anything.
And what will the state do anyway? States are coming more under the control of authoritarian capitalists – Trump, Putin, China, Turkey – and look what the EU did to Greece. Overconcern with party politics could even be said to distract from the main task – building an alternative (although Corbyn has clearly said that he’ll double the size of the co-operative economy, so yay to that). And trying to green or democratise capitalism via CSR / b-corps etc. is a hopeless task. Capitalism will continue to grow cancerously and concentrate wealth undemocratically whatever they do. If CSR prevented that, the corporations wouldn’t pay people to do it.
(btw I contemplate billions of humans dying horrible deaths – logic refuses to allow me to move that from the top spot of most likely scenarios. But I’m not contemplating complacently. I’ll do everything I can to remove it from the top spot, and for now, SE with MC seems the best choice. We’ll need a new governance to cope with that new economy, but I think that will emerge. We can’t get there from here, so to speak.)
21dilgreen March 15th, 2018
Sounds like a plan.
And in the meantime, all power to the elbows, economic viability, and consciences of people who maintain the skills, techniques, culture and feeling for making things by hand.
These are vital for many reasons – not only future survivability as you say, but for the experience of doing this – which should be part of everyone’s growing-up.
Knowing what it means to provide things you need, for yourself, by hand, with only simple tools, is crucial for getting a handle on the energetic flows of existence in a personal way. Everyone capable should earn their living working with their hands for a year or so, imho.
Mutual Credit it is, then. The VOZ group (which will be a co-op) are working on the design of a three-tier system (and starting to use it at the same time).
1. mutual credit for work mainly involving human labour. Prime purpose of the community, to grow the digital commons – both in terms of content and capacity. Some community selected projects will be ‘pump-primed’ (given a larger than typical credit limit to get things moving), members trade with each other. Base assumption, 1 VOZ = 1 hour (but not a hard fix)
2. a tools and assets commons for things that can only be got with hard cash (put cash in, get tokens out, use tokens to access stuff – should spend less in tokens that purchase cost, so your cash goes further) These will be mostly digital services and assets to start with. Surplus cash generated will either be used to add new services/assets or to buy hard-currency needs for VOZ community selected projects (as above).
3. a reputation’ score that will represent a few aspects (ie not just a single number) – perhaps with something like this: https://digital-anthropology.me/2017/04/15/trust-aggregation-reputation-economies-and-privacy/ . This last is the ‘store of value’ – your ‘wealth’ is essentially the regard in which you are held by the community of which you are a part. You can’t ‘spend’ this currency. But you can probably convince members more easily to support a project or position if you have the right sort of reputation – even if they don’t know you personally. A high reputation score doesn’t give you any hard economic power, though. And if you push people to support something dodgy on the basis of your high rep, it will evaporate pretty quickly.
Once we have the basics thrashed out, I’d be happy to write about it (although as it will certainly start around digital services, this might not be the place. Although coding is increasingly recognised and discussed as a ‘craft’ (referenced in Richard Sennet’s book ‘the Craftsman’ https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Richard-Sennett/The-Craftsman/356897), and is pretty low impact – one piece of code can be used by millions of people at almost no additional cost, as making copies is so cheap.).
Of course, people who work with their hands also use digital tools – so there should be ways to gradually expand the range of viable engagement, but we have to start somewhere…
22Dave Darby March 15th, 2018
Right – I might have to start interviewing you to try to translate into English. I’d specifically like to understand the potential connections between holochain, Credit Commons, your VOZ etc. – what plugs into what and how?
Here I’d like to make (insist on) the importance of the money system for sustainability – ie this one can never be sustainable – and how to build food production, energy generation, housebuilding, craft producers, including digital craftspeople etc. into a solidarity economy using mutual credit as an exchange medium.
23roselle angwin March 16th, 2018
What a great conversation, thank you. I’ve followed it with enormous interest (albeit also a little confusion!).
I shall follow the links and think further, too. I’m with Dave on this: ‘But yes, spot on. I’m not disagreeing with your philosophy at all – I just think that ‘craft’ products and foods will play a bigger role in creating well-being and survival possibilities than you do – and maybe (probably) all the way down to bushcraft. We’ll see.’
I need to read and think a bit more, but I still don’t see, Dil, why achieving what we’re all aiming for cannot be achieved more sustainably via natural materials, low-impact productivity, decentralised markets (maybe), and a basic anti-capitalist/non-hierarchical approach (I don’t argue that this is achievable, just preferable) – the same amount of people still need to have their basic needs met, but a hand-made jumper can indeed last 35 years (I used to handpsin, veg dye, design and knit them before I made shoes, and there are plenty of my early pieces of knitwear that will be over 40 years old now still around; and ditto my shoes, and I haven’t made any of them since 1994).
So if one person has one good jumper that lasts them decades, why on earth is that not more practicable than their getting through say one or two a year made from fossil fuel in industrially-toxic conditions?
Or perhaps I’m missing something…
24Nancy Lightfoot December 11th, 2018
This is beautifully laid out and I look forward to re-reading (but have to go to my corporate job). I love your work and am working on spinning. I’m putting it on my life list to spin local-to-me wool for you. Doing good work that we’re skilled at well is a great joy that most of us are losing. I spin, knit, and build for that and I wish we could all return to local barter or commerce with the people and talents in our communities. We listen to corporate music, wear corporate clothing, and all of that is built on misery and exploitation elsewhere and increasingly in our own lives. And none of it is near as beautiful as what is made by hand. You’ve pulled together so many important threads, and I thank you for this thoughtful blog post.