Social Ecology is a philosophy which states that environmental, social, and economic problems all have the same root: namely, the way people treat each other. By this same logic, if we can establish new structures and norms by which to operate, we can alleviate many of these problems.
There are a few different ways to apply this in the real world. One way is to build communities which seek harmonious relationships between people and the environment. Based on similar thinking, thousands of “intentional communities” have sprung up. These include everything from eco-villages to religious communes to survivalist enclaves. There are even some more tech-based communities such as CyborgSociety.
Now, each of these communities believes that their mode of interacting with one another is the most sustainable and desirable, and perhaps there is room for all of these communities. Live and let live. Decentralized communities have a distinct advantage when it comes to resiliency. Much less information is needed to govern a small community than a large one, and having multiple models functioning simultaneously ensures all of our eggs aren’t in one basket. Nevertheless, it would be instructive to examine what a truly sustainable community would look like.
In the name of resiliency, clearly there must be some attention to self-sufficiency. Now, insular autarkies are notoriously unstable, but so are economies that are completely dependent upon foreign trade for basic necessities. The ideal situation is clearly somewhere in the middle between those extremes. What we need is largely self-sufficient communities which are at harmony with nature and engage in voluntary trade with neighbors.
This same way of living could be applied by individuals or families operating within the community, to further decentralize production. If individuals, including urbanites, were given the tools for automated growing of food and simple manufacturing, imagine the potential for automatic wealth generation. Not to mention the environmental benefits of local production.
RepRap is dedicated to building open source desktop fabrication machines which can make the majority of its own parts using local materials such as fermented organic matter. Their version 1.0, codenamed “Darwin,” is a working proof-of-concept, and version 2.0 is already in the works. As such machines become more mature and more efficient at self-replication, it could soon eliminate the necessity of wage labor for survival.
Using such techniques, communities are already forming. Factor e Farm is dedicated to building such communities for all sorts of productive purposes. They have already set up one self-sufficient community using alternative energy and processed rainwater, and they are interested in building many more decentralized communities with a high quality of life. On their website, they claim, “This quality of life is based on efficient operation, plus 100% voluntary lifestyle, based on transcendence of material constraints. When resource constraints become a non-issue through wise choice of technology, skill, and open source knowledge-enabled flexible production systems for self-sufficiency - then freedom and human creativity are unleashed.”
What is especially inspiring is the potential this has for eliminating poverty. As they say, give a man a fish and he can eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he can eat for the rest of his life. As the tools for local production continue to drop in price, we can likely enter into a post-scarcity world. As we speak, there is already more than enough food being produced to feed everyone on the planet. The problem is the logistics of distributing it to everyone. Capitalism as it is currently practiced distributes in an unequal fashion, and no matter how much philanthropy we do, it is not feasible to ship resources to remote regions. What we can do is provide the tools for people to produce locally.
We are just now witnessing the beginning of what is surely going to be a huge wave of self-sufficient communities, enabled by the new modes of production made possible by the Internet and communications technologies. The prospects for this are enormous for everyone, but especially those in poorest and most dependent places on Earth.