Society isn't Broken!
This is an pretty old post from my blog, which has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. You might want to go back to the homepage to see some more recent stuff.
From Tory plans for communities to create their own schools to Guardian hacks begging for alternative currencies, ex-Soviet strategies for social collapse to alarmist talk of counter-insurgency on American soil, there has been a lot of talk lately about the advantages of small, self-sufficient communities over the single one-size-fits-all approach of the nation state. Half the world seems to think that, due to the economic downturn or by deliberate policy decision, the governments of the world won’t be effective at ruling their nations anymore.
In the latter three cases, it reeks of scaremongering – “The End is Nigh, prepare while you still can!” But this kind of idea is infectious. There’s a secret thrill in imagining the downfall of society, and somehow a rose-tinted aura of romance around the idea of self-sufficiency. There’s something that feels good and honest about being part of a small community rather than just one citizen out of 60 million.
But there’s a reason why, over the centuries, fiefdoms and tribal territories merged together into the nations we have today. Being a small, self-sufficient community is really hard and you don’t want to do it.
Whatever scale of small community you pick, there are problems.
With a village, maybe you can be self-sufficient on food provided you have enough arable land and people to farm it. But you’ll all be getting by at the subsistence level, your quality of life will be poor.
With a group of villages working together, you can grow more things, your diet gets better and you get more resistant to crop shortages and disease. But that’s the kind of issues we’re still talking about. Economic doomsayers who suggest that this is the kind of community we should be working towards are suggesting we revert our massively successful first-world country to third-world near-poverty.
With towns working together, finally we see infrastructure, healthcare, education. But we still can’t afford to defend ourselves. Effective police forces and militaries, and with them the public’s confidence that they can go about their daily business with little risk of assault or invasion, only really become possible at the level of the nations we live in today.
Splitting up into self-sufficient communities becomes even more difficult because the infrastructure we’ve built up over thousands of years of being a country doesn’t lend itself well to being split up again. Case in point: I live in a conurbation, a fusion of three towns that’s home to around 400,000 people. How much farmland do we have within the boundaries of this conurbation? Oh, none. How would we feed that many people? Well, we’d have to absorb the rest of Dorset (population 700,000) into our community. Suddenly it’s not small and romantic anymore. We might as well call it Wessex and find someone called Alfred to be king of it for about 5 years until Athelstan 2 turns up.
To top it all, we ourselves have, through thousands of years of moving away from this lifestyle, become incompatible with subsistence-level communities. They’re not going to have a lot of demand for autonomous vehicles, or for warship combat system designers, or even (god forbid) bloggers. What if – and I know this is going to come as a shock – the hairdressers and management consultants and advertising executives that live on my street turn out to not be very good at farming?
No, it’s not going to work. Nations are what we have, and nations are what we have to stick with for the foreseeable future. If the econopocalypse brings down governments, makes them inefficient, so be it. What we have to do, and luckily what happens naturally, is try our best to fix them.
As a country and a collective body of people, all we ever do is the bare minimum to ensure that life carries on as normal. And for once, that’s not a bad thing. When our society breaks in little ways, we need to find little ways of patching it up. If the Tories’ “free schools” work, then great – it’s a little patch to a problem which is tiny, if it exists at all.
But politicians telling us that “Britain is broken!” and bloggers telling us to prepare for a life of subsistence farming just aren’t helpful.
A good argument and, although there are some days when I would love to see the total collapse of all society purely for the interests in seeing wht would come next, I agree that improvement is the way forward.
The big thing that I think a lot of the people that are driving for the small society life forget, wihch I'll adit to losing in the romanticism sometimes myself, is that small scale farming, especially on an individual family level, is quite innefficient. A large farm of people dedicated to the production of food is far more capable of producing the food to feed everyone. Admittedly we probably should try harder to eat the food that is more locally produced, reducing excess shipping and support local communities are still important, but farms that serve a large number of people are still the way forward.
The problem I believe we have with moving forward though is that of conviction. The things our society could be capable of, the places we could be are fantastic when you think about them. Now look at where we are. It an overused example, but in terms of space exploration 2001: A Space Odessey was bang on the money for it's time for where we should be when the time rolled round. Now ten years after the date and we still haven't put people back on the moon.
As the human population expands as well we will find ourselves increasingly having to find better ways to get the resources for all the people which ultimately falls down to arguments of whether we can afford expansionism or not. Personally I believe that we can, in a small amount through a re-awakening of some of the colonialist ideas.
Obviously there are very few places on earth that we take colonialism to now and the methods in which colonialism was used in the past were questionable at best. There are however avenues available to us now for expansion, for new resources and new frontiers, that just didn't exist in the past. We have the technology now to start to exploit our oceans in an intelligent and safe manner (not BP style I hasen to add, but in the style once promoted as part of the future by Cousteau himself) and to expand beyond our little rock of home entirely.
You can see examples throughout history that the society which is top dog is that which has most recently driven to expand itself and to better exploit new resources. It was the Britsh Empire with half the globe at it's beck and call. Then the US started to expand and better exploit it's own resources. Most recently China has come to the fore as its started to realise the massive resources available to it for leverage on a global stage.
The last hundred and fifty years or so showed the fastest changes that I believe our societal structure and technological prowess have ever seen and now Stagnation is our biggest threat. The more we stagnate, the bigger I believe our cracks will be and the bigger the patches we will need for them. Perhaps we need a big crack to give us the courage to progress?
Well said. For better or worse the variety of activities in the world is increasing, and has done so for a significant period of time. Small communities simply don't work for a technological society (see the history of international trade and knowledge transfer even a thousand years ago). And I like it. Although its fairly important to learn something about everything, even if it doesn't interest you. Broadens the brain.