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The Age of Plunder is over.
February 24, 2005 3:35 PM   Subscribe

Manifesto: The Age of Plunder is over.

John Seymour, author of the manifesto, is the doyen of the British smallholder movement (US: read "homesteading" or "back-to-the-land"). John and his ex-wife Sally were "homesteaders" in England at a time when "self-sufficient" living was incomprehensible crankery to the mainstream. His books (e.g.) are witty, entertaining, and instructive. He has not dimmed with age; at 84 he was arrested and tried for partially destroying a field of GMO sugar beets in an act of civil disobedience.

(If the Age of Plunder isn't over, it can't go on much longer.)
posted by bricoleur (23 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Wonderful. Count me in.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:39 PM on February 24, 2005

one word:

posted by Substrata at 4:13 PM on February 24, 2005

from the arrested and tried link:

Based on a number of convictions against Roche dating back to 1975, including unlawful possession of a salmon and small amounts of ammunition, and breaches of the licensing laws, he ordered that he be bound to the peace for a year.

Man, Umberto Eco wasn't kidding about the trouble salmon'll get you into.
posted by fidelity at 4:40 PM on February 24, 2005

Although I probably share many of Seymour's general leanings, this is so overreaching ("The forests have almost gone from the Earth, the fish of the sea are all but exhausted...") it will do nothing to persuade nor motivate anyone who doesn't already share his beliefs.
posted by twsf at 4:43 PM on February 24, 2005

Sadly, with over 6 billion people this simply isn't workable anymore. Is it feasible for everyone to go back to the land? No. Mass populations mean mass food production. The forest ARE disappearing and the fish ARE all but exhausted. Even if we know it that doesn't mean that we won't consume the very last one. We're living Easter Island on a planetary scale.
posted by missbossy at 5:53 PM on February 24, 2005

The "self sufficiency" movement is, in fact, incomprehensible crankery. Just, you know, in case you weren't aware.
posted by hob at 9:32 PM on February 24, 2005

This paragraph below is a very enlightened description of corporations.
Too bad that I'm too cynical to believe that this would work - so many people would never commit to it, since most people can't imagine the consequences of this system out of control. I recognize the irony in my cynicism - that I believe there's something wrong but because I so firmly believe it I don't do anything to help, since I don't think anything I do could have any positive effect. Like he himself says it's not anyone person but the general society which is the source of the problem. So his solution is a pretty social one.
Me, I'm torn between the extropists and the self-sufficents.

"It is in the nature of a limited company that it can have no responsibility either to the environment around it or to the people who work for it. It is no use blaming the directors - if they do anything that might reduce profits for the shareholders they will quickly be replaced. And the shareholders not only have no liability for debts incurred by the company - but they take no responsibility for the world of nature around them. If the directors can secure bigger profits by dumping poisons into the nearest river - they have to do this. If they do not, they will very quickly be replaced. If they can make more profit by halving the work force - they will have to do so or again they will be replaced. If both shareholders and directors suffer from that most uncapitalist thing - a conscience - to the extent that it interferes with profits - that company will be swallowed up by another giant that has no such inconvenient scruples."
posted by klik99 at 10:23 PM on February 24, 2005

Modern economics, whether informed by Marx or Keynes or Hayek, is premised on the notion that the planet has an infinite capacity to supply us with wealth and absorb our pollution. The cure to all ills is endless growth. Yet endless growth, in a finite world, is impossible. Pull this rug from under the economic theories, and the whole system of thought collapses...

Our economists are exposed by climatologists as utopian fantasists, the leaders of a millenarian cult as mad as, and far more dangerous than, any religious fundamentalism. But their theories govern our lives, so those who insist that physics and biology still apply are ridiculed by a global consensus founded on wishful thinking.

Mocking Our Dreams
posted by y2karl at 11:55 PM on February 24, 2005

One day, in a frighteningly overpopulated, polluted and chaotic future, people who currently have their heads up their asses will pull them out and smell the devastation they've caused. Still, many heads will remain firmly lodged because of religion. These folks will only deepen their conviction in their rapture fantasies the worse things get.
posted by VP_Admin at 12:18 AM on February 25, 2005

The grinding, milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.

:it can't go on much longer
posted by airguitar at 2:36 AM on February 25, 2005

Having just finished the Harper's article, I'm left with an odd feeling about the last paragraph. The long article is packed with many statements of fact. He's an authority. But the finale is about him dropping a cow elk from a wild herd that feeds near his Montana home. An act of violence less violent than eating a tofu burger. But this last sentence talks about how his choice preserves the natural order of things, rather than damaging it, as the selfish choices of so many other people have done. This is the crux, isn't it? What's good for you is bad for the planet; what's good for me is natural. This sage wisdom of his about what effect that single act will have in a super-complex system no one can understand in total smacks of a disingenuous confidence play, or an ironic sense of self-importance.

When a sober reading of ideas like his points to the bumper-sticker conclusion 'Save the Planet, Kill Yourself', it seems like a cop-out when he avoids saying just that, but fails to come up with anything better.

Again, that seems to be the crux. Deck chairs on the Titanic. Let's play some shuffleboard! Or not. But what's the or not? Backyard elk? NIMBY!
posted by airguitar at 3:59 AM on February 25, 2005

He has not dimmed with age.

Umm, he died last year. Good bloke though.
posted by ceiriog at 7:56 AM on February 25, 2005

So much of this is based upon the biggest fallacy in left "economics" -- the supposition that the way we use energy is some kind of sui generis irrationality, and ought to be dealt with outside of the context of supply and demand. Energy usage is entirely economic, and responds to supply and demand promptly and dextrously. The idea that we ought to the allow sanctimonious to push us to change our preferences outside the demands of the market is absurd. Don't like Hummers? If oil stays above $40 a barrel for too long, you won't need to sniff self-righteously when you see one coming down the road .... people will stop buying them, and when enough people do that, GM will stop making them.

And why should I trust the musings of someone who doesn't understand the absolute necessity and economic irreplaceability of corporate limited liability? If we insisted that every investment carry with it the risk not just of loss of the investment but of everything own owned and a lifelong garnishing of one's wages to support liability not satisfied from one's property, there'd be virtually no private sector risk-taking, not to mention no pension funds, no IRAs, no chartable endowments, no college savings plans.

Same question for the paranoia for large organizations? Everything that makes 2005 living better or easier than 1805 depended utterly upon mankind's increasing success at building up large, yet deftly specialized, organizations -- like research universities and institutions, vehicle manufacturers (yes, even of bicycles), hospitals, etc.
posted by MattD at 8:37 AM on February 25, 2005

Energy usage is entirely economic, and responds to supply and demand promptly and dextrously.

Right. But the market mechanism that would achieve this is broken because the true cost of consuming fuel in your car is not priced accurately. Yes, the price you pay at the pump accounts for the cost of extraction, refining and distribution.

But there are other costs that society bears: negative health effects of pollution, the cost of clearing up the environment, etc. These 'social costs' are not factored in to the pump price and so the market 'clears' with consumers demanding more fuel than would be the case if the price was set accurately.

This is a classic example of why a laissez faire free market system needs a helping hand (appropriate taxation of fuel with revenues directed towards clean up costs etc) to work correctly.
posted by freddles at 11:36 AM on February 25, 2005

"...partially destroying a field of GMO sugar beets in an act of civil disobedience."

I'm not sure that I'm entirely in agreement with the definition of civil disobedience that you're using here. I recognize that civil disobedience can be read as a peaceful breaking of the law, but in a Thoreau sense, destroying crops hardly seems to fit the spirit of civil disobedience.
posted by rush at 11:41 AM on February 25, 2005

Freddles, to say that the oil industry is laissez faire or free market is a bit hasty. It's one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world, running the gamut from price fixing to subsidization.

As for the hidden costs of fuel consumption, "free market" economics do not assume that balance must be achieved entirely within the bounds of a given vertical market. You appear to be assuming that environmental issues associated with oil consumption are entirely the concern of the fuel manufacturers, which goes counter to the vast majority of legislated efforts to reduce pollution from oil use. Consider, for instance, the increasingly aggressive emissions regulations that address the manufacturers of combustion engines, as opposed to oil producers. Please also consider that oil producers have, in turn, put some hefty investment into identifying and implementing cleaner fuels, without much in the way of legal prodding. It seems that, to a certain extent, the market demands cleaner fuels.

I'm not saying that the free market is perfect, I'm simply asking you to recognize that it's a little more difficult to understand the interplay than just looking at a single vertical.

I think we should make a healthy effort to understand the system if we're going to attempt to manhandle it with taxation.
posted by rush at 12:00 PM on February 25, 2005

Energy usage is entirely economic, and responds to supply and demand promptly and dextrously.

A more succinct response to this would be "FALSE: Energy usage is intensely politicized, characterized by everything from hidden and explicity subsidy, intricate relationships to military support and routinely plays a role in both the stabilization and destabilization of governments worldwide, without respect to any other merits of those governments. To suggest that the energy supply, usage, incentives and exploitation are subject to simplistic economic rules is rubbish. Oil is power, the power to produce and the power to express military force. And power is political."
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:53 PM on February 25, 2005

George_Spiggot: Well said.
posted by rush at 2:49 PM on February 25, 2005

George_Spiggot -- you have an exceptionally impoverished notion of what "economic" means, particularly (especially!) if you think that "political" (or "power") necessarily contradicts it. All of these factors you cite are straightforward applications of the demand for energy.

It is simply false to suggest that indirect costs don't fit well into supply demand models. In every market there are many stupid people (say, for example, the people who don't recognize that their taxes are fractionally devoted to supporting the military which assures their energy supply) but those stupid people, in this market as in others, get to free-ride on the rational people who understand the indirect costs very well. As for the production and transport of goods, anyone who invests in Target knows perfectly well the matrix of impacts of energy costs and benefits on manufacturing in China and surrounding stores with 30 acre parking lots.

I humbly suggest that tossing out words like "power" and "political" and "exploitation," to say nothing of laments for the sad fate of indigenous dictators, is exactly the kind of "dazzle-them-with-BS" nonsense which locks the left out of intelligent discourse on matters like this. And it's a shame, too, because some of the ideas which get overlooked are good ones -- like the advantages of organics or the potential efficiencies in small-scale, close to consumer, cultivation and manufacturing.
posted by MattD at 3:52 PM on February 25, 2005

I'd love it if you could point out, just for example, a "lament for the sad fate of indigenous dictators" in what I said. And to characterize what I said as "an argument of the left" is a pointless diversion; nothing I said was leftist, and to point out that a situation is political is not in itself political. Can you make points on points and not on ad hominen by shakily supported association?

Setting aside corruption and conflict of interest, one of the principal reasons the government likes a high consumer demand for oil is -- perversely -- energy security. Energy security is not about global reserves, it's about availability; and availability means supply lines. A strong consumer demand creates robust supply lines, a weak consumer demand attenuates them.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:20 PM on February 25, 2005

Rush, I appreciate your comments, and you're right to say that the oil industry is relatively heavily regulated. And to the extent that that regulation is effective at reducing the environmental impact and that the cost of compliance finds its way into the pump price then demand will be modified in an appropriate way.

You appear to be assuming that environmental issues associated with oil consumption are entirely the concern of the fuel manufacturers

I really didn't mean to imply that. I certainly see this as a problem for society as a whole. The oil companies are simply supplying a product that consumers desire. Both sides benefit from the transaction and so both sides must be responsible for fixing the problems that arise.

But whatever efforts (voluntary or otherwise) the oil companies make to reduce the environmental impact of their business the fact remains that much of the mess (I don't mean to use the term in an provocative way) goes uncleaned up; the web of mechanisms that you helpfully refer to represent a fair attempt on the part of governments and the industry to address the issue. But the measures are not 100% effective; there's still mess.

So, to the extent that it is ineffective we either need to increase regulation to compel the oil companies to directly take more responsibility or, alternatively, raise taxes so that society as a whole directs resources to cleaning up the bits that the oil companies miss. In reality, of course, a good approach will likely consist of both tactics, and probably other I haven't thought of.

I'm simply asking you to recognize that it's a little more difficult to understand the interplay than just looking at a single vertical.

I say: 'good point, well made'.
posted by freddles at 7:12 PM on February 25, 2005

...the absolute necessity and economic irreplaceability of corporate limited liability

Economic irreplaceability—yes. Absolute necessity—hyperbole.

The corporatist model of capitalism has its utility, undeniably. Equally undeniable are its evils. While some parts of Seymour's manifesto overreach, his short description of the nature of corporate responsibility is as accurate as such a brief description could be.

Let us not forget that the corporation is a legal entity; i.e., a fiction crafted by lawmakers for the supposed good of society. If experience shows that the current constitution of corporations protects the owners unduly from responsibility, it would be only rational to amend that constitution. There is nothing sacred about the current model.

The problem that Seymour means to address, I think, is that we have inadvertently given too much power to corporations, so much so that we find it difficult to change what needs to be changed—and we're running out of time. And there is also the question of how, exactly, one would write short-sightedness out of the corporate constitution. So he would have us starve them into submission. A crazy idea, maybe, but it might work if (or when) enough people see that the sacrifices were worth the returns.

The idea that we ought to the allow [the] sanctimonious to push us to change our preferences outside the demands of the market is absurd.

This is an odd claim. In economics, "our preferences" and "the demands of the market" are synonymous. If we delete "outside the demands of the market" as senseless in this context, we are left with the simple claim that the sanctimonious should not be allowed to dissuade us from our preferences. Pshaw. What if the sanctimonious are on to something, and some of our preferences are actually dangerous addictions?
posted by bricoleur at 5:05 AM on February 26, 2005

But there are other costs that society bears: negative health effects of pollution, the cost of clearing up the environment, etc.

I think all the talk so far about the economics of oil has totally missed the larger point that is so clear in the Harper's article. The way we're using the majority of the oil we burn is wasteful and inefficient. It's there, so we burn it. We make gadgets, TV dinners, and shopping malls with it. We use it to move all the world's manufacturing to China and all the consumption to America. Sure, the market will efficiently put a stop to our wasteful ways once oil becomes scarce, but by then we'll already have used up most of it, burned it up for nothing in countless ways, only a few of which have been mentioned here. It's a gigantic opportunity cost. But it's a long-term cost, too far in the future for the markets to worry about it. While there's advantage to be gained today, nobody's going to worry about how their actions are effecting the collapse of industrial civilization fifty or a hundred years from now.
posted by sfenders at 8:16 PM on February 26, 2005

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