Economic Issues

Last Exit to the Road Less Traveled

We now stand where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one less traveled by—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.
– Rachael Carson, Silent Spring

What’s important to keep in mind in this quote from Rachael Carson’s 56-year-old warning shot over the bow of corporate civilization is that there are two roads being traveled now. We are no longer at a fork. The fork is half-a-century behind us. The goal is not to get the superhighway to somehow re-route itself and follow the path less traveled. It can’t. The superhighway will, and must, continue accelerating in its inevitable direction, simply because the greed and power of the people driving that highway will not allow them to alter course. But if there is any truth to Rachael Carson’s warning (and there seems to be growing evidence of it) the other path—the Road Less Traveled—will become the surviving branch of our evolutionary diagram. The present goal, therefore, should be to create as many exits from the superhighway as possible—and to encourage and enable as many people as possible to take those exits to explore and follow the other path.

Visualizing how we all got on this superhighway in the first place will be helpful to seeing the exit ramps. To make this visualization, it isn’t necessary to speculate about an ancient, human pre-history. The process can be clearly seen and understood in a modern anecdote describing how one particular community of people joined the highway.

I quote now from the book Fishing Lessons by Kevin M. Bailey*, where he retells author Robert Johannes’ story of fishermen in Palau, an island country in Micronesia. “Seafood was once abundant there. The Palauan fisherman never had trouble finding enough fish to satisfy their own and their village’s needs. The fisherman gave away the fish they didn’t eat to other villagers.... They lived in a state of ‘subsistence affluence.’

After Japan colonized Palau in the 1920s the fishermen began to sell their fish to obtain attractive and exotic goods offered by the Japanese. The fishermen bought nets and motorized boats with the money, allowing them to catch more fish to sell in order to obtain more goods. They fished harder to harvest more fish and visited more distant areas of the reef to find them. Over the years, the fish abundance dropped.

The fishermen bought even bigger boats to catch the vanishing fish, but to do that they had to borrow money. They had to sell all their fish to pay off their loans. They stopped giving them away in the villages; instead they sold them to the outsiders and to other villagers. Now the people in the village had to work for the money to buy their food....

Pretty soon, there were not enough fish over the reefs for the fishermen to make payments on their loans, so the village sold their customary access rights to the fishing grounds. The people in the village began to eat imported fish in cans.

In a nutshell, that is the superhighway. Here are a few simple observations:

  1. The superhighway is driven by trade.
  2. Trade seduces local people to transform a local resource into a commodity which they exchange for commodities from other localities.
  3. Transforming local resources into commodities—which can be sold to much larger communities (i.e. markets)—seduces the local people into over-harvesting or over-utilizing the local natural resource.
  4. As the local resource-commodity becomes more difficult to obtain, local people are further seduced into adopting new and more aggressive technologies to harvest it—resulting in a further over-harvesting or over-utilization of the resource.
  5. As the technologies required to harvest the local resource-commodity become more complex and expensive, the local people are forced to go into debt to acquire and operate those technologies.
  6. To service their debt, the local people eventually are forced to consign to their creditors their natural ownership of the local resource itself. The local people are now the tenants and employees of the new owner—which, in one personification or another, is the “superhighway.”
  7. The new tenants and employees now work for wages—which are set by the superhighway—and must use their wages to buy their subsistence in the form of commodities produced by the superhighway from the global network of local resources it now owns and controls.
  8. In the end:
    1. The superhighway literally owns the earth’s resources.
    2. Everyone in the world is a working tenant and employee, (except for the 1% of the people in the world who are the creditors who own the superhighway itself.)
    3. Every local resource has been over-harvested or spoiled to the point of collapse or depletion.

It is this last point, of course, which is ultimately Rachael Carson’s warning: Whether you’re a creditor or debtor, an owner or employee, a landlord or tenant, when the local resources (and all resources are “local”) are spoiled, depleted, and cannot be restored or renewed, the pavement of the superhighway comes to an end. There is nothing left to exploit, nothing left to trade. Long before that point is reached, however, life stops being fun—first for the 99%, then, finally, for the 1%, which is basically everybody still traveling the superhighway.

The Artisanal Path

Meanwhile there is the Road Less Traveled. People who took that fork some time back are doing things differently. The chief differences are two: First, they are using local resources to create goods and services for local communities rather than mass-markets. Second, they are refusing to harvest or utilize their local resource beyond what it can sustainably provide. In fact, people on this path spend time and effort to nurture their resource with great care. (If they are fishermen, for example, they research the habitat needs of the fish they catch, and they plant the plants and clean the waterways that feed the habitat.)

Because of this fundamental approach to life and business, instead of adopting ever-bigger and more expensive technologies to increase yields and profits, these people derive genuine pleasure from exploring and perfecting the “art” of producing their product or service while preserving and enhancing the sustainability of their resources. They are what we call “artisans.”

Just so there is no confusion on this point, don’t imagine that the term “artisan” refers to special talents in making something artistically attractive. If you’re a hard-nosed, practical-minded engineer, don’t imagine you can’t be an artisan. In fact, you could be one of the greatest artisans who ever lived. All that’s necessary is that you apply your hard-nosed practicality to the “art” of utilizing resources sustainably to create something of utility. That is the art that economist E.F. Schumacher called “beautiful.” That is what artisans do. And that is what gives them fun, challenge and pleasure in their everyday lives.

The last exit to the Road Less Travelled, then, is the path of “artisanship.” And the essence of artisanship is the pleasure derived from addressing the challenge of how to be healthy and comfortable on the earth without over-harvesting or spoiling local resources.

This all sounds naively utopian for the simple reason that everyone knows the artisan life is not a high-paying job. In fact, it might not “pay” anything at all! This is a fundamental problem with the Road Less Travelled—and a big obstacle to the goal of attracting more and more travelers to its path (so it is an operating, viable roadway when the superhighway begins to falter).

Take the example of the artisan fishermen again: They are going to plant plants and clean waterways that improve the habitat for fish, right? Who is going to pay them to do that work? When they subsequently catch a fish and sell it in their local market, they will earn some dollars—but to earn enough dollars to also pay for improving the habitat that nurtured that fish, they must sell the fish for two or three times what a fish sells for on the superhighway. This is what is known, conventionally, as “economics.” The superhighway fisherman not only doesn’t spend time or effort nurturing fish habitat, he operates a giant floating machine that actually destroys the habitat while efficiently sucking and scraping the water for whatever happens to be living in it. The machine is expensive, yes, but the cost per fish scraped out is—at least until fish population collapses— “profitably” low. This translates to the superhighway market next door to the artisanal market: flounder at $5/pound, versus flounder at $15/pound. Where are you going to shop?

There are two answers to this question. First, if you have a decent-paying job on the superhighway, you can “participatorily” exit to the Road Less Travelled by skipping the supermarket and purchasing the more expensive artisanal flounder. The value and importance of this kind of participatory exit cannot be over-stated. There are emerging artisanal businesses all over the country, and they should be smothered with love, affection, and consumer dollars.

The second answer is that we need to demand that “conventional” economics be seriously reconsidered in our highest political offices and debates. What good is a conventional economics that tells us we can only create jobs and “profit” by literally destroying and despoiling the resources we depend on? That sounds un-economic to me—but it is literally the generic business model of the superhighway. What good is a conventional economics that hammers us with the logic that our monetary system can freely create money to dig out and grind up resources (because doing so generates a “profit”)—but we cannot create money to restore those diggings to their natural, productive state (because who would earn a “profit” by doing so)?

The last exit to the Road-Less-Travelled, then, ultimately depends on establishing a new understanding of the modern fiat-money we use today—an understanding that will enable us to see a remarkable new reality: the “costs” of resource protection and restoration are the income of artisanship.

*I am grateful to Kevin M. Bailey for introducing me to the general theme of this essay—as well as the quotation from Rachael Carson.

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