Transition and the Global Village Construction Set
By John Isaacs-Young
Sometime in November last year, someone from Transition San Francisco went along to a talk by Marcin Jakubowski during his Bay Area tour. This is some of what they reported on the Transition-sf blog.
I saw Dr Marcin Jakubowski present ‘Economy in a Box’ tonight at the Fish house in Berkley. Wow!
I'm not the only one who's impressed. Marcin was just named a TED fellow; your next chance to see him speak might be via YouTube, when the TED Talk he's going to give in late February or early March is released to the public.
The idea behind the Global Village Construction Set is to make everything we (and farmers, and homebuilders, and..) need, using open source equipment. Costs are cut by 90%. People only have to work 2 hours a day to get everything they need.
What Marcin is doing is absolutely vital to Transition, to permaculture, to surviving peak oil, and to reducing climate change and to surviving that as well.”
Marcin Jakubowski’s talk is ‘Economy in a Box’ and is a 45 min video presentation.
Dr Marcin Jakubowski, when he’s not out and about giving talks, lives on 30 acres outside of Kansas City in Missouri USA. He is young with physics and engineering qualifications and skills to match. He is a techno optimist. His big picture plan includes mechanical toys that will save the world. But he doesn’t think big in the usual way. He doesn’t fantasize about future hydrogen or cold fusion economies. In fact all the machines that interest him are small and small town friendly.
Like Transition, Jacubowski’s ideas emerged from and include Permaculture. His Global Village concept is the familiar one of downsizing of the primary, stable social unit away from the big city or nation state back to the scale of the community farm or small town or village. But he has a particular take on relocalisation. His Factor E Farm (factory farm) aims to support itself in terms of food (Permaculture) and it also manufactures stuff on site – low, medium and high tech. By so doing, Jacabowski’s plan would be looking to escape exposure to the catastrophic cascade of failures that await our interdependent and flawed big systems. The full implementation of his initiatives would enormously reduce the global energy footprint without leaving behind all the technological supports that we in the privileged parts of the world currently enjoy.
His ‘Global Village Construction Set’ utilises existing technologies. It consists of fifty machines that Marcin and friends have identified as necessary for techno-cultural continuity. Although they have been identified few of these machines exist yet on the necessary micro scale. They are out there in their massive form in industry, designed and built for mass production and mass distribution. These dinosaurs await a rebirth. Some of them according to Marcin are worth scaling down. Others require the application of different design principles. There are challenges involved in miniaturization but it is mostly quite achievable and apparently not that difficult.
I personally have very little understanding of machines or fascination with them. If the next phase of human history were to dispense with them altogether I may not be too upset. But I think people will want to have them around in one form or another. Some of these things that Marcin is contemplating look complicated, involving multiple processes, 3D printers and software programs. Will he and friends really be able to get aluminium out of local clay and silicon from sand for computer chips with their own small-scale equipment and local power generation? These are two of his projects.
One of the key boasts of the E farm concept is self-duplication – tools and machine tools that can make machine tools, right there on the farm, out of natural resources or scrap. For example a torch table has been designed and built that can make a torch table. This enables the production of parts for all sorts of things and the viral spread (of torch tables that can make torch tables) - to new communities. Small machines can be designed with the ease of local production in mind not ease of mass production. Ease of use, repair and long lasting qualities, are the other obvious considerations that are incorporated into the designs. This has been demonstrated with the Lifetrac (tractor) and a brick maker that utilizes the local soil. It spits out bricks at an impressive rate, costs a fraction of the commercial equivalent and has been released as a product.
The designs produced to date are open sourced - available free of charge on line. If I understood correctly, those engineering types that go to the Open Source Ecology wiki, can get involved with plans or add to the library of open source community scale designs.
The growth/debt based financial model that underwrites our world culture has over-reached and lost its balance . Anyone who is a little familiar with how the exponential function operates within our growth model or what complexity theory tells us about mature systems under stress knows that our current way of doing things is no longer working and all attempts to fix it can only make it less functional. The earth is not big enough for this particular game to continue. So much of what we make is designed only with mass production in mind. The machinery is massive, the energy inputs to it are huge, the energy wasted is colossal, and the resulting products are designed to throw away. When the giant factories close there will be whole classes of things that we may have to do without altogether if they cannot be produced on a small scale locally, with a much reduced energy input. In the case of a great many things that come our way today, ‘good riddance’, we might say. Other things, though, may turn out to have been necessary to our survival or the survival of some semblance of continuity or for the buying of time for transition to a more workable way of life. Those things we may dearly miss.
Our Transition Town movement emerged a few years ago, from a ‘Permaculture’ course, with Peak Oil and Climate Change concerns as motivating drivers. It was quickly recognized as a great idea and within a couple of years more or less absorbed the Relocalisation Movement. One of its principles is that we need not re invent the wheel. If another organization or individual is already doing something that is useful for our transition initiative, we invite them in or we join them or whatever. At any rate, I think the Global Construction Set deserves a bit of discussion. It is something that Transition has not yet covered in quite this way.
The basic E farm concept is not so difficult to grasp. It is the implementation of the concept that requires some contemplation. Jakabowski, I gather, sees his plan as a solution to most of the world’s problems. He is dismissive, at one point in that 45-minute talk, of the very notion of peak oil, as any sort of a problem any longer. What is he thinking? “My answer for a down sized world is now out there on line”? “All it will take is for everyone to step up, recognize the Jacabowski E farm solution and the energy problem is solved, just in time”? Hello! I don’t think it’s that easy! I am inclined to forgive Marcin this hubris, if he is guilty of it - on account of his youth and because he’s walking his stuff as well as talking it.
In several years of acting upon and talking up his plan, there is only now a slow take up and a recognition of its potential and still no real money funding it. By now, if circumstances had been more congenial, there might have been E Farms all over the world. The workload could have been spread; the 50 machines could have been made.
There are reasons why a smooth and easy transfer to a low energy economy is unlikely to happen any time soon. One cannot, for example, overestimate the level of psychological embeddedness of almost every one of us in the context into which we are born and have lived. The industrial age is our age after all. Whether it continues to advantage us or not, the underlying assumptions upon which it was built are fundamental for our lives and identities, almost like breathing. Only at the edges do some of us start to question the under-pinning stories. We are not converted so easily even to a sensible idea; intellectually perhaps but not profoundly. Even in the face of the disintegration of the world as we know it, we will tend to want to cling to our big-systems-world and demand that it be fixed. We will lend our support to those who will claim to be able to bring it back.
Those who enjoy or have enjoyed positions of power are even more invested and will be relentless in their efforts to rebuild the big systems. Time and again this will look like it is going to work only to fail again. In the falling energy era, the long supply lines will not hold up. Ideas like Transition and the Construction Set are likely to gain steady traction but against considerable odds. This will probably go on and on for years. Things are likely to fall into place as Jacabowski imagines, only when people are finally fed up, disillusioned and are ready for a complete change of heart. A new way of life will only work in conjunction with a new way of being.
Historian Carolyn Baker puts it thus: -
“I personally prefer the notion of a process that is unfolding in roughly three segments, all of which are congealing, convoluting, and complementing each other. The first segment I believe is the collapse of industrial civilization in which we are currently deeply embroiled and which will inevitably intensify.
The second would be a period of transition which has also just begun and will also intensify, followed by a Great Turning, in which after a long period of anguish and the decimation of Cartesian dualism, humanity will likely engage collectively in an unprecedented turning from its self-destructive paradigm and for the first time in many millennia, embrace and create infrastructures for living a paradigm that authentically and unequivocally sustains life on earth.”
Jacabowski’s primary self-sustaining, self-duplicating social unit will exist within a network of other such units across the landscape. Together they will form a tapestry of interacting towns, villages and farms that will differ from contemporary equivalents in that they will be independent of long supply lines and grid infrastructures and will not be sourcing all their machinery or manufactured or processed goods from remote locations.
If one village faces power failure the rest of the tapestry of towns and villages carries on. Contrast this with a region serviced by a centralized power grid. If the power stations go down and can’t be quickly fixed, that’s it, the lights are off everywhere. The same applies to food that goes to, and comes back out of a collection point, a big city market. When that city experiences a major flood event or when fuel for transport is unavailable – then those dependant on that supply line, miss out. In the case of fuel shipments being disrupted, currently Brisbane has enough fuel stored to last for four days – the Sunshine Coast – two days and in a situation of panic buying – one day.
Where food miles are small, this sort of situation does not arise. In terms of what might be called national or regional security, strong local economies working together form a sturdy structure – much more so than a group of unproductive, or narrowly productive, centrally dependant, grid fed towns.
But big corporations need something big to operate and control otherwise there is no need for them to exist. Naturally they want to perpetuate their existence and make a profit out of being what they are. Central governments and large business interests, for that reason, will never take kindly to such a shift in the primary social unit away from Big. If you are part of a central-control-system, your philosophical inclination and drive will most likely be towards ever more centralized power. You’ll believe in concept associations that include words such as ‘progress ‘and ‘growth’. You’ll see how good these are for everybody. If there are contradictory stories to the growth story, you will be inclined to diminish them. You and your associates are not likely to voluntarily devolve too much of your influence to grass roots interests. Some conservative political groups claim to believe in ‘small government’. This means in effect, they like to hand over public assets to ‘big business’ who in turn fund their re election and maybe even employ them when they leave politics. This is not small government. People from certain industries, such as the banking industry, are employed in some countries as top government bureaucrats. This amongst other things results in nations governed more or less by large corporate interests.
The notion that this locus of control would be allowed to shift, would be simply utopian if it were not for the fact that change is on its way, for all of us - change that appears to demand something like what e farm is offering. As things unwind the centralists may not always be in a position to halt the power shift to small.
Even as the big systems begin to come apart on account of their inefficiencies and a lack of energy to drive them, still those in charge of them will try everything within their power to keep them going. Any and everything will be taxed to subsidize them and to keep them working. We will be told how absolutely vital this is. The national interest and national security will be cited, maybe with some justification.
The globalised mass producing/distributing centralized economies have reached a point of maximum complexity where every investment in more complexity brings less actual return in benefits. On the other hand, the village-sized unit requires a fraction of the energy and can operate, Jacabowski assures us, “from a real time solar influx”. Radical re localization, with all necessities produced locally, implies a completely different economy and a different psychological and spiritual orientation.
Although we here in Australia are unlikely to be able or willing to down size to the village scale any time soon, we can possibly manage to do it here and there. Some examples can be in place. At the very least we only need one unit, or scattered parts of a unit, that can self-duplicate. It can sit there if need be for years and when conditions are right it could go viral.
The Transition movement has the small town, grass roots touch. It is an organization that mirrors and relates well to traditional small town community groups. That’s why it has been accepted and accommodated around the world by local governments. This is where its strength lies and perhaps its weakness also. Transition like those other community groups may be in danger of losing relevance if events take over and leave it dreaming only little dreams. We may go on repeating words like ‘resilience’ to each other without those words gaining meaning or causing us to think far beyond the sort of projects that happen anyway, without an emergency on our door step.
Sooner or later, some bold thoughts will be needed and some unlikely alliances will need to be forged.