Thursday, July 31, 2008

The old-fashioned household economy returns.

Our standard of living doesn't have to go down simply because the prices of imported foods and goods has gone through the roof. What will happen, though, is a redirection of energies, labours, and inputs. What our government has defined as "prosperity" and "economic activity" differs wildly from real life experience in many cases. What we do for ourselves and trade amongst ourselves in our own communities actually has higher real life value than buying cheap junk from overseas. For an example, here is an excerpt from the John Michael Greer's blog about the economic activity of his wife's yearly Jam making activities:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Reviving the Household Economy
Part One: The World Outside the Market

...Consider the economics from the perspective of the participants in the creation of the homemade jam, though, and things take on a very different shape. Even aside from the other reasons Sara and I might want homemade jam, we have a potent economic motive; by making the jam ourselves we get a superior product at a lower price. The raspberry grower, in turn, benefits handsomely from the same decision; the price she gets for her berries when sold directly to the consumer is several times the price she can get from wholesalers. According to conventional economics, the end result of individuals freely pursuing their own interest in a market should be the maximization of prosperity – and yet if prosperity is measured by the gross domestic product, our free pursuit of our own interest decreases our contribution to national prosperity.

What is happening here, of course, reflects one of the largest of the blind spots of contemporary economics: the assumption that market transactions mediated by money are the only significant form of economic activity. Our household jam-making activities drop off the economic radar screen the moment we finish paying for the raw materials. Value is being produced – the same jam offered for sale at next week’s market would bring substantially more than the cost of the raw materials – but it’s being produced outside the market economy, and therefore has no official existence in an economy measured entirely by market metrics.

What makes this particularly relevant in the twilight of the age of cheap oil is that the world’s industrial nations, and above all the United States, have spent most of the last century transferring as much as possible of the household economy into the market sphere. In making our own jam, among other things, Sara and I belong to a minority of American households. Glance back a hundred years, by contrast, and nearly every family in the country outside the very rich and the very poor had an active household economy that produced a large fraction of the total goods and services they consumed. Many factors contributed to this dramatic shift, but one of the most significant is the availability of cheap abundant energy...

...At the same time, it’s crucial to recognize that the forces holding the current economic order in place reach beyond the realm of simple economic calculations into murkier areas of culture and collective psychology. For those who have access to fruit growers – and with the growth of farmers markets across the US and elsewhere, this has become a tolerably large fraction of the population – making one’s own jam, and a great many other food products, is already a paying proposition; so are many other activities that once formed part of the household economy, and very likely will do so again; yet these activities remain the hobbies of a minority of today’s Americans, and most of their neighbors turn to the market economy to get inferior products at higher prices instead...

Now, a disclaimer: I make jam. For every year of my adult life except the last two I have made Jam. And I intend to make it next year, just as soon as our tiny townhouse condominium "backyard" can reaches good productivity. It's not an instant process, as any garden hobbyist could tell you. This is why people need to begin working on their backyard, balcony, and container gardens now - in order to be up to speed in a year or two or three when imports and deliveries of foreign food will be in a period of extreme instability - which some doomsayers believe will be a permanent condition. I believe that eventually - and the process will be veeeerrrryyyy sllllooooooowwww - enough agricultural relocalization will take place to stabilize access to seasonal fruits and vegetables.

But it won't happen overnight. Ditto for other cottage industries your community will need. Skills take time to learn and hone. Local craftsmen and women need time and resources to collect the tools and materials they will need. We must prepare for the future - a future that doesn't involve being able to drive the SUV down to wally-world and buy cheap plastic junk and cheap textiles from across the sea.

Not having these things does not have to mean we must do without - not at all! We can make these things ourselves out of traditional materials. We don't need plastic junk.

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