[permaculture] Financial Collapse / Katrina

David Travis djtravis at hotmail.com
Mon Mar 3 13:13:56 EST 2008

> From: Toby Hemenway 
> Subject: Re: [permaculture] The Five Stages of Financial Collapse
> To: permaculture 
> ... But centralized control structures are notoriously poor at dealing with rapid change (e.g. FEMA and Katrina), and I think the USSR merely shows how   
> difficult it is for an industrial state to collapse fully.

This is a rather ironic interpretation of Katrina, given that the initial response to the disaster was to "allow" (if they could afford it...) families to purchase their own options for evacuation "on the market", and that subsequent disaster relief was both decentralized (with multiple state and federal agencies both claiming and disavowing responsibility for multiple relief responsibilities)  and lacked a fixed structure. So claiming that Katrina is a case where centralized planning and structure existed but failed doesn't seem like a very accurate description of what happened, since the main criticism seems not to be so much that these didn't work, but that they simply existed as haphazard afterthoughts if they existed at all. If anything, Katrina is a case where a lack of coordinated centralized planning, a blind faith in consumer "freedom" and markets,  paired with a lack of action on the part of state and non-state agencies, lead to a rather devastating and embarrassing outcome. 

I'd also like to note that this is a classic neo-conservative strategy coming from the unlikely and well-intentioned pen of Toby Hemenway: using (well-founded...) public animosity and distrust of the government as a way of defending (in the case of conservatives) deregulation and corporatism. I know this isn't what Toby has in mind, but we simply can't exchange the failures of one system as evidence for the success of an alternative, especially when this "alternative" has a history that's as wasteful and bloody as any government could hope to be.

> A far better system to deal with rapid change than a centralized one is a highly distributed network of independent agents, like our economy.

This is interesting, considering that "our economy" has virtually destroyed our planet, has exterminated and enslaved entire cultures, and has managed to become one of the most inefficient, self-destructive, and inhumane resource allocation and management systems ever devised. I would be genuinely interested to hear why anyone would consider it to be a good candidate for dealing with rapid change.

> Western economies are like ecosystems and thus more resilient to chaos than centralized ones. 

I'd be very, very cautious of leaping head-first into analogies like these. An ecosystem might "adapt" to stress with "positive" things, such as symbiosis, but it may also respond with increased incidents of epidemic disease, population decline, and even species loss. These changes in an ecosystem might allow for the net preservation of biodiversity over the long run, but it does so in a way that involves adaptations which, if translated into actions within a human society, would be morally abhorrent. Allowing the old, young, and sick to be culled by resource depletion, or looking upon epidemic disease as a positive "adaptation", takes the intuition that "mother nature knows best" to a level that is frightening and sociopathic. An economy or political structure might adapt and survive, but this tells us absolutely nothing about the quality of its treatment of human beings or the Earth.

In fact, I think America went through a period where the government was small, our economy was "free", and a "naturalistic" philosophy of society and economics was all the rage. That philosophy was called social Darwinism, and that time period saw massive class disparity, worker exploitation, institutionalized racism, runaway pollution, widespread human rights abuses, and the final massacres of the First Nations. This America might have been very "resilient" and "adaptive", but it's no place I would want to live.

- David Travis
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