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Will becoming a yokel improve your life and save the planet?
Roko Mijic   Jul 7, 2009   Transhuman Goodness  

(Response to Edward Miller’s “How to Redesign our Communities for the Internet Age” on open source ecology.) If we are to reliably produce good ideas about changing the world here in the blogsphere, then we must prune out the bad ideas; open source ecology is a bad idea if ever I saw one.

First, let me quote the main open source ecology wiki page:

Open Source Ecology is a movement dedicated to the collaborative development of tools for replicable, open source, modern off-grid "resilient communities." By using permaculture and digital fabrication together to provide for basic needs and open source methodology to allow low cost replication of the entire operation, we hope to empower anyone who desires to move beyond the struggle for survival and "evolve to freedom."

Here is a quote from Edward’s post:

It is this sort of thinking which is required for a peaceful transition to a new era for our civilization. It will allow us to become resilient to the converging threats which face us from ecological destruction to market failure to terrorism. Global supply chains have shown themselves to be exceedingly vulnerable to these shocks. I hope we can overcome these by localizing production by utilizing global knowledge sharing so we can all enjoy the type of future some of the previous guest bloggers have been talking about.I would like to see the technologies for food production to be as decentralized as possible. Whether that means vertical farms, community gardens, or single family gardens. I think what would make the most sense is to have cheap, mostly automated greenhouses with drip irrigation built into homes as standard practice.

But does it make any sense on a cold, rational level?

1. Will open source ecology allow people to feed themselves using only locally produced food and materials, without requiring everyone that give up their day job and without vastly reducing population densities?

Just how much land do you need to support one person by farming? This reference states that "Depending on climate, soil conditions, agricultural practices and the crop grown, it generally requires between 1,000 and 40,000 m² (0.25 and 10 acres) per person". The UK can thus probably support a population of about 10 million if we all do nothing but farm in our own little farmsteads. In support of this point, according the UK Census of 1801, the UK population was about 8.5 million, and according to another source it was about 4 million in 1600. So, before we developed modern agriculture, we were, in fact, limited to that figure of 50 people per square kilometre – note that 50 people per square kilometre times 250,000 square kilometres (the total area of the UK) is 12.5 million people.

Now, it is possible that in the very best of circumstances, using the best technology available today – hydroponics, fertilizer and artificial lighting, we might achieve the upper bound of 1000 people per square kilometre. But even this is not high enough. To feed all the people in a large city – for example London – using only the available land area of London, equates to feeding 5000 people using just 1 square kilometer. The usable area is of course even less. These people would have to be able to feed themselves by being farmers in their spare time, all using only locally produced tools and energy, without giving up their day jobs with an area the size of a large living room per person for growing crops, purifying water and recycling sewage. Excuse me if I deride this idea as total and utter nonsense, on a par with the beliefs of creationists, rather than being merely implausible.

2. Will open source ecology allow people to feed themselves using only locally produced food and materials, by making everyone into full-time subsistence farmers and dismantling cities so that population density is low?

In order for everyone to survive like this, the cities would have to be dismantled and the population spread evenly over the country – this is because the population in cities is much greater than 1000 people per square kilometer. This would, of course, completely disrupt the country for years and be massively expensive and unpopular. It is, however, plausible that many jobs could be done without cities – for example using telecommunications technology, but there are some jobs that really do require at least 100 people to be in the same place – for example an engineering company or a chip fabrication plant, an army barracks or military base, or a car factory. It is, however, not plausible that people could feed themselves through subsistence farming using only locally made materials, and only 1000 square meters of land whilst holding down a normal job. People have perhaps 1 hour of free time that they could spend doing manual labour per day – and if we look at the videos on the OSE site, we hear reports of “full days of backbreaking manual work” – and on the OSE factor-e-farm they use nonlocally produced fuel and a nonlocally produced engine for their tractor which does the hardest manual work for them. This shows that OSE high-tech subsistence agriculture is not an option that can be kept "on standby" in case of a problem - it is an all-or-nothing switch to a different, more local phase of society. And, of course this means that we have to consider it in a different light: not as a backup for modern society, but as an alternative. As such it has its own increased risks which I will mention later.

3. Will open-source ecology help save the human race from extinction? Will it make our society more resilient?

Given the above analysis - that we simply do not have enough land to live the "local" way, it is clear that open source ecology would not be able to save everyone. But it could certainly save some people - for example the survivors of a particularly bad nuclear war or bioterrorist pandemic. In fact, after such a war, people would probably spontaneously invent something like OSE due to the severe lack of food and the disruption of trade and transportation. So, on this count, OSE is a clear winner - a great fallback option for the "lucky" survivors. However, waiting for most people in the world to die is not exactly the ideal existential risk mitigation strategy; anyone who lives in a city would almost certainly end up dead in any scenario where OSE because useful..

4. Will open source ecology "free us from the necessity of wage labour", "make us freer"?

Now, in a sense, this claim is a little bit too vague to analyze. The implication seems to be that we will have more free time, or that we will spend less time working. Perhaps one could interpret it to mean that we will live in a moneyless society, and we won’t have to work to make money any more. Unfortunately, both of these claims are false. Firstly, how much free time you have for a given standard of living is a function of how rich your society is, i.e the GDP per capita. In the UK, this value is high, so life is relatively good. What would happen if we implemented open source ecology? Would we get richer? No! Because of economies of scale, making production more local makes everything more expensive. Fundamentally, our civilization works because of economies of scale. Adam smith discovered this in his seminal work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations; Smith realized that by specializing to produce just one thing, you can produce that thing more cheaply. A lot more cheaply, in fact. Now, since our present high wealth is powered by super-massively large economies of scale, reducing the scale to the farmstead level will decrease our wealth. We will not be able to afford such luxuries as healthcare, education, going to university, meeting more than a small group of people, using computers, travelling around the world, going to art galleries, watching movies, making art, having specialists who make scientific discoveries, etc. We will instead have to spend our time tending the crops or repairing the home-made tractor.

5. Will open source ecology will be good for the environment?

Well, getting rid of 90% of the world’s population would undoubtedly be good for the environment. Fewer people means less environmental footprint, but it strikes the author that this is not a politically viable option in the near-term. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that a small number of people take up the open source ecology movement, utilizing a small amount of land that is not really being used at the moment anyway. Will this be good for the environment? Perhaps, though the effect will be insignificant, since the number of people involved would be small.

6. Will OSE protect us from terrorists?

As I have already argued, local living would mean disbanding or vastly reducing the army and the government (as well as pretty much everything else except farmers!). Any larger than average group that decided to arm itself would be able to "gobble up" adjacent groups through military conflict, kill the men and rape the women (humans have done this kind of thing throughout history, and it seems to have been the dominant mechanism which caused large societies to replace small ones). It is only by having the most efficient possible farming techniques that leave a large segment of the population free from the need to farm for food that countries such as the UK and the USA are able to achieve the kind of military dominance we have, by having specialists in fighting, weapons development and espionage. So, although OSE would protect us against terrorists attacking central infrastructure such as power plants or tall buildings, it would leave us wide open to something much, much worse: open military conquest and war crimes by anyone who decided that conquest was more important than local living.

7. Will highly advanced technology make Open Source Ecology work?

With the development of advanced nanotechnology, and robotics (possibly nanorobotics) we are likely to see products and materials with superlative performance that would allow a person to very easily produce enough food to feed themselves in a very small area of land.. But don’t hold your breath: such technology will probably arrive around 2050-2100, and even then if your nanoreplicator or farming robot broke down, you would not be able to fix it using locally made tools. So ultra high-tech local subsistence farming is not actually resilient – using high-technology solutions makes you more reliant upon centralized facilities to supply and repair such devices.

8. So what is OSE good for at the moment?

Well, it seems like a natural fallback if the worst does happen. In brighter times - such as those of today - it is a great hobby, rather like having an allotment, a metalworking hobby and a home-science hobby all rolled into one. It also seems to foster a sense of community and social capital, though at the cost of the people involved being somewhat deluded about the significance of what they’re doing. Open source ecology is ultimately a hobby movement, and does not stand a serious chance of changing the world for the better in a big way. Though, on the other hand, it is one of the best hobbies I have ever seen, because it contributes to people having a better understanding of how practical things work, to working together with their community as a team, and to people getting both physically and mentally fit.


9. Why have otherwise very intelligent people been sucked in by the OSE’s false claims?

It looks to me like OSE is an example of the worst possible human cognitive bias – motivated cognition. This is what happens when you become emotionally attached to an idea – in this case “decentralization as the solution to all our problems” - and then you start actively looking for arguments in support of it and actively looking for ways to dismiss any arguments against it. As you become more enamoured with the idea, you start to associate all good things with it and disassociate all bad things from it. The proponents of OSE didn’t even say one bad thing about OSE on their website, but they associated every positive thing they could think of with it – it will make us freer, richer, help the environment, free us from the drudgery of work, protect us from terrorists, they even claimed that it could lead to an end to all wars and human conflicts. Motivated cognition is a systematic failure mode of the human mind which everyone is highly susceptible to unless they take active steps to prevent it, known as rationality training. You can find out more about this by looking at, or the Wikipedia article on cognitive biases

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