"There is this idea that one needs to re-locate in order to decentralize. Moving away into open land, away from urban areas, away from the civil perimeters of town and community; this can be advantageous but also be isolating and misleading." Essay by Carlos Cuellar Brown, a New York City artist and essayist.
Much of the problems with civilization are attributable to the centralization of social control. Social control has been around ever since the first wise person decided to own land and dominate others, perpetuating his or her own agenda. In the modern times, political forces have dominated the social agenda with layers of bureaucracy for every function of governance. In these systems, top down style dominance works to keep semblance of order, this establishes pyramid like chain of command where absolute power in the form of a supreme being sits at the pinnacle ensuring the obedience of the people. If you follow the historical trail, the figure of nobility represented by a demi-god or monarch stood at the top of a social hierarchy, this relationship assured millennia of servitude and set the pathology of submission. If we fast forward, the digital age and the internet has showed us that hierarchies can be entangled and work randomly across the bar. The modern nation state governs the population with privilege, taxation and market trade, locking humanity into a central structure that provides for all its needs. Centralization of power concentrates wealth and capital in the hands of the few; these concentrations monopolize land and resources rendering us dependent on their grids.
Shifting off the centralized structures takes a resilient adaptation. Many communities and nations are already promoting de-centralization and independence. Decentralizing also means becoming self-governing, resourceful and self-reliant. Less dependent on central distribution of energy, electricity, food, culture, medicine, education, goods, services and building codes. To achieve greater independence communities will reduce reliance on public utilities, creating power and generating capital exchange; we will also grow and maintain our locally grown food supplies and share surplus with neighbor communities. To decentralize from the grid lock we must also build social structures and create transition community management; setting clear goals for the benefit of the environment and the people, where ecology shows the way with its very own natural technology. The key to implementing innovation in social structure is a clear understanding of design science and our foremost teacher which is nature, when we learn her ways we will be able to harvest natural inputs and manage our outputs efficiently and elegantly.
There is this idea that one needs to re-locate in order to decentralize. Moving away into open land, away from urban areas, away from the civil perimeters of town and community; this can be advantageous but also be isolating and misleading. Granted that land is primal in the production of human activity, humanity also needs to live in community, in the perimeter of families and neighborhoods, like the old agrarian communities of the Appalachians. In this scale decision making and social design is centered around community. Within this epicenter the local neighborhoods bank on their interest for the benefit of their people. These subsets will replace the national and global centralized powers that be. These smaller radiuses must employ responsible and accountable individuals with strong moral compasses, men and women that merit public service through responsibility and transparency, honoring the trust being given to them. The smaller radiuses make it easier for society to demand checks and balances, the visibility of the appointed members in design making process will steer in favor of majority and consensus, administrating the say of participatory democracies. Additionally short term appointees and no re-election assures that there will be no career politician in charge. The purveyor of public office will articulate community opinion in a open system that votes on issues. In systems like these, one does not have to re-locate and abandon ship, we can stay put in our city limits and engage in the decentralization of power and renewal of society.
Our urban landscapes have hundreds of acres idling useless and abandoned including rooftops, empty lots, public land and parking areas. Just in the borough of Brooklyn New York, a recently evaluated study identified 596 perceived acres of vacant public land available for community development (“596 Acres”, 2015).
Another advantage of our cities and urban areas is that many neighborhoods and communities are already knitting and operating adjoining social networks in the proximity that unites them with common expectations. These social structures are a plus in the deployment of a new decentralized economy where community activism and local market activity push away the domination of global economic trade. The corporate economic preferences that drive society too fast and too hardly towards the abyss, underrate the benevolence of unselfish interest. These other preferential interests lead us to the kind of aggressive mining of earth resources we have seen in these last couple hundred years. When greed drives our personal preferences forward we are led to lie, cheat, hurt others, bullying recklessly, cowardly, to do anything it takes to protect number one. On the contrary when we are bounded and centered in other not overrating our own ambitions, we are thoughtful, giving, honorable and respectable of the families that bind us (Gilbert, 2004).
With de-centralization comes self-reliance, self-reliance is usually associated with lonely and rugged self-sufficient types, these outcast populate far away remote areas unplugged from the grid, usually in retrofitted energy efficient homes. The American “preppers” are one example of this niche-culture, together with its own National Geographic Channel. This reality show foresees apocalyptical scenarios and focuses on the dramatic measures and extreme planning that a person or group of people must do in case of a modern grid collapse (“Doomsday Preppers”, 2015).
Self-reliance can also be applied gradually and massively in every household with the spread of clean technologies and design science. We don’t really need to go anywhere, we can make energy efficiency work for us where ever. The retrofitting of all buildings and communities will bring thousands of new jobs and resources. Local and regional economies will empower the individual to thrive in a resourceful economic renaissance. Buildings will be designed to catch water and regulate temperature within its thermal mass. These buildings will have microhabitats that grow food and recycle its own throughput (McDonough, 2013). One of the first things we have to do as community subsets is to implement design de-regulation and implement flexible legislation of building permits; extreme resourcefulness will be necessary to retrofit our urban spaces and country. Our new building code must promote renewable technology, foster water catchment and allow roof gardening and internal system management. Available neighborhood green areas and empty lots can transition into productive and remediated food gardens; lets give them tax incentives; lets price private and community agglomerates that install bio-gas living machines in their neighborhoods.
Generating Capital on a Public Energy Grid
Electricity is used in almost all of what we do, it is essential to run the modern world. Electricity powers industrial plants and reactors, it powers our motors, fans, trains and vehicles; it runs our financial systems, home appliances and lights our streets. In the US 67% of the electricity is generated with fossil fuels (“What is U.S. electricity generation by energy source”, 2015).
Like a giant octopus that encloses and constrains its tentacles, the dependence on fossil fuels locks us in a monolithic approach to energy resources, the evolution of modern social systems depends on new technology and alternative approaches to energy production.
At this juncture in history we live in a full world where the cost of extraction and mining for fossil fuels surpasses and grows faster than the benefits it brings to society. This tipping point begs for a smarter way of energy production, otherwise we will undoubtedly come to a halt and stifle. Increasing demand and massive-industrialization of China, India and the third world will jeopardize and pressure increasingly the central capacity to supply electrical energy for everyone. Our standing monolithic energy grids will not be sufficient to keep us going; many of these systems are past their operational shelf lives. As an example the aging energy grid system in the US is in due need for retrofitting and upgrading of its infrastructure. All the transmission lines, capacitors, meters and switch boards need to be revamped; most of it should transition to local smart grids run by alternative clean energies and renewables. Countries like China are already designing sustainable cities and regions like Dongtan Eco-City and Chongming Eco-Island, these projects will deploy circular economies that are energy self-reliant and self-sufficient (Chang and Sheppard, n.d.). When a city or region is able to supply their own power demands, this region, city or community switches off the central power grid. We could say these regions, cities and communities become more robust and equipped to manage the challenges of the future.
Let’s not forget that behind every utility company, is the corporate petro carbon based industrial giant monopolizing distribution resources and services, making us dependent of this rigid massive energy grid. This puts society at a disadvantage and vulnerable to the mono-supply of energy and design. Off the grid living promotes independence from this kind of energy supply, away from power monopolies in a system where resourcefulness and self-reliance becomes central to new energy distribution.
Energy innovation through design science inspired new technologies can engender an era of self-empowerment. With people, family, local business and communities switched off and decentralized, every household furnace and building can become energy autonomous. These new energy structures will be reconstituted in regional micro-grids with high capacity storage technology. Many buildings around the world already produce their electricity; some structures catch and purify their own water and process their own waste generating bio-gas for kitchens and heating. Envision a time where building management runs near marginal costs, zero waste and has greatly reduced energy bills. Amory Lovins envisions a time when every structure including our homes will harvest free energy for its basic operations with surplus electricity that can be sold back as capital to local markets (Hawken and Lovins, 1999).
If this were the case, we would reduce dramatically the cost of industrial production eliminating the service company intermediaries and their speculative markets. Every household and community structure will bank surplus energy as capital units that spill back to the micro-grid; this capital becomes the value backing for a new encrypted bit currency system of monetary exchange that will equalize the playing field and facilitate redistribution of wealth.
The renewable energy and new technologies required to produce this transformation must have a clean environmental bill, where inputs and outputs are close to equal. In nature input equals output in a well-choreographed dance of life that self-regulates efficiently with no waste. All production costs are based on input expenditure and output exchange. Nature is finely tuned to keep this exchange close to zero. However in our modern industrial models, that exchange is not equal at all. Approximately two thirds of the energy transformation ends up as waste. The industrial track record does disgracefully in this transaction; for every energy exchange it produces, it generates enormous collateral costs that output dangerously pernicious waste back to the system. Additionally the supply of certain goods and services stimulates unproductive consumption and reckless discharge. The current production design is high in entropy, wasteful and destructive of the ecosystems they mine, as evidenced by the fracking runaway economy that is leveling mountain ranges in the Dakotas and poisoning our deep well waters of the midwest (“Worst Fracking Wastewater Spill in North Dakota Leaks 3 Million Gallons Into River”, 2015). These industries do not account nor calculate the cost of repair and remediation of environmental externalities. The financial books that run the corporate cash flows and calculate GDP omit the depletion of our seas and topsoil’s, how much does that cost? They omit the human expense caused by the toxic contaminants in our food and drinking water.
In nature we have a renewable source of clean energy throughput in sun, wind, geothermal, tidal and hydro sources. These energy sources are our most valuable asset capital. When we learn how to harvest its magnificent potential every community will bloom, they will generate capital monetized energy units. Making a system like this would make of every building a “power house” a literal economic engine. The alternative currencies that could be generated in this system are naturally backed by the suns, winds and thermal flow potential for renewable generation of energy.
Nature also has forward pull, call it growth; growth tends towards increasing complexity, diversity and efficiency, continuing to evolve and recycle until meaningful adaptation refines order and moves to low entropy. Endless growth economies are limited by the biophysical realities of our planetary system; this reality breaker needs to shake the minds of captains of industry and the public at large. If we have renewable and non-renewable resources to draw energy from, evidently we must preserve the diminishing deposits of non-renewable resources.
On the other hand a host of renewable resources and technologies are flourishing and have become part of everyday life. We also have unlimited resources for creativity and adaptability, I envision a renaissance of ingenuity where humankind will tap into other clean energy resources, harvesting power in a well-tuned fine balance aboard our tiny planet somewhere in the outer spirals of the milky way.
Unplugged if you will from modern society but connected back into “smarter” community grids not controlled or co-opted by any one company but by the totality of the people; disconnecting from an obsolete and oppressive mono dependence, moving towards regional self-reliance; designing resourceful communities with self-reliant people, fully connected to the web of life.
If we decided to design the most formidable “off the grid” and self-sufficient power house it would look a lot like a tree. The tree has mastered the technique of harvesting sun, water and essential soil minerals. Of course trees need proper environments to sustain natural processes and that is to say that they don’t live in isolation, nor are they separated from relationships with the exterior. The tree is an excellent proposition for new production systems, it capitalizes mostly on the sun for its energy and uses water and soil composition; in exchange it outputs a host of utilities that include producing oxygen from photosynthesis necessary for all aerobic species to thrive. The trees shade and debris generates micro-climates for underbrush diversity; it provides fruit sugars, nuts and food for forest dwellers. It sequesters carbon from the atmosphere; it fixes nitrogen into the soil generating rhizomes of mycelial life. The tree can distill water from vapor and provide habitat for thousands of organisms. The tree is the biological thermal mass that provides heating and energy for larger ecosystems (McDonough and Braungart, 2002). The tree and nature have figured out this circular relationship, in a waste-less life cycle of reciprocity and abundance.
The tree creation is a miracle given to us with unquantifiable value, yet its value and contribution to the whole of nature is shadowed greatly by the narrow minded utility resource mining of paper mills and timber corporations. They exclusively turn trees into paper pulp, palates and furniture. The collateral damage of this behavior is the cutting down of all Amazonia and rain forests.
Why not preserve all the trees and call for a moratorium on all timber mining?
Why not learn from this very efficient power house that re-cycles and reuses its own waste?
Why not modify and model our modern building structures to resemble the trees multiplicity of function and design? We already have clean technology available to do this. Unfortunately using clean technology to unplug from municipal services has been ruled illegal by a court in Florida. Allegedly being disconnected from the municipal grids violates the international property maintenance code. This ruling is contemptuous on our right to choose what’s good for us and the right to be left alone. (“Court Rules Living ‘Off The Grid’ Is Illegal”, 2015)
Regional Food Supply
Besides reducing your reliance on public utilities and creating your own power sources, decentralization is about growing and maintaining locally grown food supplies. Society must depend less on long distance mono-crop intensive toxic agriculture and move towards a society of local gardeners, horticulturist, small farms and family farming. Replacing heavily mechanized mono-culture agro-industry with perennial models of food production. Our western narrative of conquest, treating nature as our dominion to be invaded needs to stop. For one thing we only have limited supplies of land, sea and resources with limited space to live. The ancient Greeks were aware of our limitations, industry must operate within these bio-physical parameters working with nature rather than against it and industry should not be the sole activity of corporations; individuals and communities need to become industrious themselves. This smaller scale of production can be implemented using technology that resembles natural systems. Big nature, our wise nurturer has resolved how to integrate and promote living systems. In nature we get diverse resilience and emergence of stable and productive ecosystems, they create great complexity generating order out of chaos. We must learn from nature so we can work with her. The Chinese figured out how to enrich nature, their rice farmers learned to retain and build soil for thousands of years on sloping lands; they implemented terrace rice-paddy techniques. These techniques remediate land and prevent erosion worldwide. (“Rice terraces presented in Civilization”, 2015). Newer approaches investigate how nature deals with difficult habitats and environmental challenges, but more importantly how nature deals with growth and abundance within limitation.
Mimicking nature and doing what’s good for the planet, is fundamentally doing good for the people. Society can use this principle to create a perennial culture. This philosophical approach to land practices brings conscious ethical earth care and care for its people. These systems weave an abundant distribution of surplus in the framework of crop diversity, regional food supply, edible forests, edible gardens, vertical gardening and horticulture. These systems have a concern for regional proximity, microclimates, water way’s, soil management and building design; they also base production on guilds of companion planting in symbiosis with animals, insects and microorganisms that invigorate these life cycles.
One such system was developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1924; he called it biodynamic agriculture which is a holistic system that treats the farm as an organism. The goal is a closed loop, where no inputs are brought on to the farm. Soil fertility is built through cover crops, plant debris, food scraps and in house animal manure. (“The Agriculture Course”, n.d.). These systems have proven efficient and abundant, incredibly diverse and resilient to environmental changes. They mimic nature for food production; their design capitulates on different growing ‘zones’ where productive edges are formed. These systems also include the more than 20,000 varieties of edible plants as well as the thousands of vegetable species and fruits developed by agrarian societies for millennia. (“Edible Plant Uses”, 2015). Many of these approaches are already inspiring grass root initiatives, they seek to build resilience and mitigate the environmental challenges of our times. These transition communities will take charge of their own destiny in a era of self-empowerment (“Communities in Transition”, 2015; “The Transition Town Movement”, 2015).
Our collective experience on earth bounds us within social structure. At the epicenter, of these social structures we have learned to grant the authority of governance to individuals whom in absolute power have reigned the estate to fit their own interest; forgotten their utmost responsibility to the service of public office; they eventually corrupt degrade and commit suicide on its people.
The governance of social systems is a matter to complex to dissect and explore in a single essay. The main role of governance is to keep order and proper functioning of the social contract, for the management of these social structures we need executive circles; the larger the social group the larger the management center with executive mandate. I think that the institutions of governance should break up into smaller subsets and constituents, under the umbrella that honors our agreeable social contracts and the promotion of peace and liberty.
The forms of government that are most common today require much revision and adjustment, our last couple of millennia have left us with a long list of failed states, tyrants, monarchies, emperors, dynasties and military monsters that bullied and ruled with iron grip. The relatively recent federation of states idea of nationhood is a step in the right direction; we must go further and grant the right to governance and autonomy to every municipality, county and every neighborhood. These subsets will constitute a regional hub with a transparent central authority. The area of jurisdiction of such regional hubs will grant authority to a much smaller radius. In circles where real contact with community and its people is a matter of every day transaction. Good management at this scale is greatly increased; the proximity of issues and regional needs makes it easier to address goals and action. For these positions of strategic importance we need managers not politicians. Our times cannot allow politicians promoting self-interest or party lines, we need efficient neighbors with no agendas as managers of our collective commons as well as perhaps a planetary council that stewards the precious finite resources aboard this blue ship and also oversees the remediation of the pristine waters, soil, air and food that sustains us all. For all this to work we must abolish war, we must live in peace, approaching conflict with constructive and positive solution based negotiations and alternatives.
In spite of humanities record of failed civilizations our social design and evolution has tended to favor the more benevolent plural and broader participatory open societies of the later centuries; this is where we must continue to go to become a type 1 civilization. The role of federal government in this evolution will be limited and small. The rest of the statehoods including city-states, regions and towns will unplug from federal over sight and manipulation. We must do as Thoreau suggested and promote the best government which is the one that least governs (Thoreau and Smith, 1993). To replace the role of the nanny state and federal office we will transition to inclusive and participatory social institutions that are mostly bound to their regional status. Within each of these institutions there will be citizens given the authority to manage social directives; their prerogative is to guarantee basic human rights in a open society of freedom and liberties. These managers will be kept in check in the public eye; the surveillance state that is currently being imposed on society will turn around to monitor those in public office.
Public office must recover its honorability and responsibility for the authority given to them. This will attract individuals motivated to work for the peoples of their community. Managerial teams in public office will be conformed by highly talented social designers and administrators whom are committed to public office. Public office will only be coveted for the honor of serving community, it will not be a high paid job, with no finance contributions and no revolving doors, furthermore there will be no reelection and only short term occupancy. This way we guarantee a generational agenda designed by mass and wide consensus, with experts designing what promotes long and abundant futures for our children’s children. This will eliminate personal agendas imposed by those who seek political power for short term personal profit. These new managers of the public office will work with participatory democracies that vote on issues in an open society.
The bureaucratized compartmentation of government with all its laws is in the way of progress, Henry George told us in the 19th century that we must simplify and purify government as the natural progress of social development, this simplification unmistakably will lead society towards increasing cooperation. Civilization he says: “is the art of living together in close relationship” (George, 1966). The pursuit of freedom is the foremost application of our inalienable human rights, allowed to be left alone, free from oppression, free from the centralized bureaucracies of governance that claim to own us. Our modern nationhood’s as sovereign states emerged out of the renaissance, before then the corporations that ran society where centered in nobility, church and principality. (Rice and Grafton, 1994)
The increasingly complex legal system that keep these institutions in power are static and immovable, they resist the speed of which ideas get spread in the digital age. Ultimately we can not have new social structures that allow for new ideas unless we remove the legal barriers and mono culture mentality embedded in our society; we must also eradicate the paradigm of conquest and materialism with its monetization of nature.
Ecology over Technology
We have already said that de-centralization is not the same as isolation. Nothing can exist in isolation, we are always con-joined to a system. Like the aspen forests of the northwest which give the appearance of individually separated trees competing for resources, they are really but one system with an intricate and extensive root matrix that connects them all (“The World’s Largest Known Organism Is In Utah-And It’s Dying”, n.d.). The story of separation has led us to assume separateness as a condition. Nothing in this universe is separated but rather entangled, connected to the larger informational grid we could call the cosmic server; back on earth we are part of a larger system we call nature. Nature is a continuum peddling through the big cycle of life. Natural forces have designed the ecology needed to produce mammals and cognizance. This natural technology has proven efficient and effective for eons of years. The ecology of this planet has learned to lower its entropy cleverly recycling consuming and producing what it needed to set the stage for our emergence.
Ecology’s gift to us is this amazing and abundant display of changing biology, a feedback mechanism that the universe has set up to learn and evolve.
The design of biology should be our study for action and solutions. This natural technology is many times clever than the most efficient man made system. In biology the single organism expresses a larger structure deeply rooted to this world and the universe; bound together in rich and meaningful ways, operating in cooperation and collaboration with the capacity to survive and surpass the high entropic locality of our solar system and neighboring cosmic coordinates.
The cosmogenic nursery of the universe is bound at its center to everything else. Most of us believe that we are centered in ego; spun off in materialism, hedonism and superficial values. We have set up the belief that we are the leading character in this movie we call life. Our realistic centers are located in community and neighborhood, nurturing other in our great big family home. The multiplication of all regional centers is a multifocal sentient structure examining itself. At these epicenters the uniqueness of each one of us will contribute to the greater whole, like the internet and its connectedness which has created a larger conscious structure with no true center.
Center points can accumulate incredible energy density; from the center out bounds an explosion expansion as the inflated center point connects to everything else in a field of interconnectedness. We have come to learn that we live in a connected universe, and everything in the universe is within you as the great sufi poet Rumi would say. In this sense there is no center and we are all the center of the universe simultaneously. In this learning, species self-preservation would be a necessary premise for intelligent life to emerge. Our egocentrism has belated our relatedness as a species that co-exists in partnership with environment. In this preservation it is simply not enough to take care of you solely, aware or not-aware of reality; we can no longer sustain personal ambitions in a vacuum, in an all against all war for self-aggrandizing. Unlike the material quality of nature our hearts and minds have unlimited capacity for spiritual and intellectual growth, these qualities are reflected in our inventiveness and tool making but also in empathy and altruism. These qualities are also reflections of a larger reality that is evolving. In nature we see the role of growth as emergent aggregates; somehow nature has wisdom and perpetuates itself understanding its limitations and readily able to regulate critical biophysical unbalance. If we are to grow as a species we will have to attain the cultural refinements of selfishness and love; the selfish what’s in it for me behavior and of hoarding capital built out of fear, forgets that there is a shared space and a shared experience through cooperation and empathy that contain all meta organisms. Individual expectations and goals have increased many times exponentially and this is a good thing, all these possibilities enhance the evolutionary transit towards the eschaton.
The lesson is that we cannot be separated from our own, from the planetary whole and from this universe. Each conscious being brings a particular perspective to the pie and we will design collective expectations and goals with biology as mentor. In this system the individual is superseded by a collective organism that is composed of the many. The many however are located everywhere, plant, animal and bacteria; the many are the neighbors in regional epicenters that govern themselves in community management unplugged from centralized national agendas and twisted ambition. To resolve the conflicting behavior of humankind with its environment, I bet on ecological design over artificial technologies. In this age of the anthropocene, human behavior and management of social life will determine the next step of evolution on planet earth.
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Carlos Cuellar Brown is a New York City time-based artist and essayist who has written on media art, social theory and metaphysics. He is currently a columnist for Second Sight Magazine out of the Netherlands and blogs here.