December 5, 2012 (LocalOrg) – Cuba, Thailand, New York City. All three have faced either economic or natural disasters. The adversity and degree to which each was affected varies, but all have lent us invaluable lessons and warnings about future, inevitable collapses and disasters. With this knowledge in hand we can begin preparing ahead of time, so not only do we “survive” the collapse, but we create thriving, advanced communities that remain entirely unaffected by such collapses – after all, prevention is the best medicine.
Cuba: In 1991, the Caribbean nation, after the fall of the Soviet Union upon which its economy hinged, found itself so destitute it was unable to feed its own people. The writing had been on the wall, particularly when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began instituting “glasnost” economic reforms, but little was (or could be) done in time to head off the consequences of collapse.
With no other choice, the people of the city of Havana began tearing up empty lots, reclaiming abandoned buildings, and planting “urban gardens.” Neither “communist” nor “capitalist,” the spurt of survival-driven local enterprise brought a people teetering on the edge of starvation back to a degree of stability. Journeyman Pictures, in their 2003 documentary “Seeds in the City – Cuba (23 mins),” tells the story of Havana and the urban gardening revolution that took place there.
The lessons of Havana’s journey haven’t been entirely lost on nations next in line for economic catastrophe. Many (but not nearly enough) in cities across the United States have begun investigating roof-top gardening and raised-bed gardening (.pdf) similar to that found in Havana. In Southeast Asia’s urban city-state of Singapore, aquaculture and vertical gardening are being developed, and people around the world have been quietly perfecting the art of indoor hydroponics.
Before one can have an advanced civilization, one must be able to feed themselves and find clean water. The movement in Havana, in turn inspiring movements around the world, offers us a model to begin developing before the collapse. Had the people of Havana preemptively developed urban agriculture before the collapse of the Soviet Union, they may have thrived instead of just survived.
Thailand: In 1997 the bottom fell out of a series of unsustainable economic bubbles that had been developed across Asia, thanks to the international banking cartel’s International Monetary Fund (IMF). Like in Cuba, the writing had been on the wall – the same reckless spending and debt accumulation that preceded the Great Depression was on extravagant display, particularly in Thailand where clearly, even across its urban skylines, it seemed things were growing too fast, too unsustainably.
When the plug was finally pulled, construction stopped, businesses went bankrupt, businessmen began hanging themselves, and across the country destitution began to set in. Half-completed mega-structures littered Thailand’s capital of Bangkok like gargantuan skeletons for the next decade.
While the backlash against the IMF was swift in Thailand, a degree of insidious “liberalization” was implemented, and while the country slowly built itself back up, clearly a new theory of economics would be needed to prevent a similar, or worse collapse from jeopardizing the stability and prosperity of the Thai people.
While politicians are busy selling the idea that the summation of human empowerment comes from “democratic elections,” Thailand’s ancient monarchy, an institution over 800 years old with the current dynasty having ruled since about the same time the US has been a nation, proposed self-sufficiency from the grassroots up.
Self-sufficiency as a nation, as a province, as a community and as a household. This concept is enshrined in the Thai King’s “New Theory” or “self-sufficiency economy” and mirrors similar efforts found throughout the world to break the back of the oppression and exploitation that results from dependence on an interdependent globalized system.
The foundation of the self-sufficiency economy is simply growing your own garden and providing yourself with your own food. This is portrayed on the back right-hand side of every 1,000 baht Thai banknote as a picture of a woman tending her garden. The next step is producing surplus that can be traded for income, which in turn can be used to purchase technology to further enhance your ability to sustain yourself, improve your life-style, and develop your community.
The New Theory aims at preserving traditional agrarian values in the hands of the people. It also aims at preventing a migration from the countryside into the cities. Preventing such migrations would prevent big agricultural cartels from moving in, swallowing up farming land, corrupting and even jeopardizing entire national food supplies (see Monsanto).
Also, by moving to the city, people give up private property, cease pursuing productive occupations, and end up being folded into a consumerist paradigm. Within such a paradigm, problems like overpopulation, pollution, crime, and economic crises can only be handled by a centralized government and generally yield political solutions such as quotas, taxes, micromanagement, and regulations rather than meaningful technical, and most importantly, permanent solutions.
Also, such problems inevitably lead to a centralized government increasing its own power, always at the expense of the people and their freedom. The effects of economic catastrophe are also greater in a centralized, interdependent society, where everyone is subject to the overall health of the economy for even simple necessities like food, water, and electricity.
Under the “New Theory,” demonstration stations all across Thailand have been created promoting education in matters of agriculture and self-sufficient living.
Thais in general have a very self-reliant nature, and have weathered well the latest global economic downturn because of it. By further enhancing this self-reliance, particularly by leveraging education and technology, and by expanding self-reliance from agriculture to all aspects of modern civilization, the healthy cells of vibrant, technologically advanced communities can begin forming the structures of a healthy, vibrant, independent nation. Those that wish to gamble in the global casino-economy may still do so, but with the vast majority of the people isolated from the inevitable consequences of these unsustainable, unproductive practices.
For others around the world, the example of the Thai King’s localized self-sufficiency model provides a framework for constructing similar local socioeconomic “arks” that will not only survive the floods of economic tragedy, but float above them. We can envision not only local agriculture feeding us, and the adaptation of technology to augment rudimentary skills to diversify our economic activity, but we can integrate emerging local institutions like hackerspaces, FabLabs, community labs, as well as leverage resources such as open source software, hardware, and open courseware education.
New York City: The latest example comes from America’s east coast metropolis, New York City. In October 2012, it wasn’t economic collapse that swept through the city, but rather the failure of state infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Federal agencies and the Red Cross failed categorically. The city government likewise bungled its response, despite bloated budgets meant for just such an occasion.
People were left without power, water, and food, while rancid flood water invaded their homes. People were paralyzed in inaction, waiting for government help that was never coming. And like previously in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it looked as if an already tragic natural disaster was about to be compounded by immense incompetence and indifference at the highest levels of power.
Luckily for New Yorkers, a grassroots movement that had begun months ago, and still had a coherent organizational structure which it promptly converted from politics to pragmatism, and effectively mobilized the resources victims needed to begin recovery. “Occupy Wall Street” became “Occupy Sandy.”
Black Agenda Report’s article, “The Hurricane and the Failed State” concluded by saying:
“There will always be catastrophes but we should not expect a failed system to save us from them.”
If ever a sentiment has been qualified by a real world example, the community response marshaled by the underfunded, underrated Occupy Sandy movement – working in the shadow of multi-million dollar federal agencies and international organizations – is it. Occupy Sandy’s advantage was that despite the little resources they had, their intentions were genuine, their purpose was both urgent and personal, and the stakes were a community they themselves must live in and the benefits of getting it back up and running again as quickly as possible.
The lesson is clear, “get a plan, get a program, and do it yourself or it won’t get done.”
What if “Occupy Sandy” wasn’t just a re-purposed, ad hoc movement? What if it was a permanent local institution of, by and for the people to address their most important concerns through the same pragmatism and community effort exhibited after Hurricane Sandy? What if such an institution was around before the storm hit? As in Cuba, the result of what was a disaster narrowly averted, would have been adversity soundly managed.
Prevent the Collapse
In Cuba, Thailand, and New York City we saw the merits of local, pragmatic activism and the demonstrable advantages it has over centralized solutions, be they derivative of big-government or big-business. In Cuba we saw how resourceful, well-educated people were able to adapt in the most unlikely environment to solve a food shortage, and how their localism filled the gaps the centralized government was unable to.
In Thailand we see, today the resilience of a self-reliant people able to weather the worst global economic depression in recent memory. We see how Thailand’s ancient institution encourages localized socioeconomic arks, designed not only to survive economic collapse, but thrive above it.
In New York, activists reaffirmed that only we ourselves have our best interests at heart, and regardless of resources, well organized localism can prevail even when multi-billion dollar federal agencies and foundations fail.
To prevent the collapse, rather than merely survive it, we must take these lessons to heart, and begin developing our local communities. As tempting as it is to throw our hats into the ring of the latest political debate, to wring our hands in fear and despair as a corrupt system festers and falls apart, to horde and to hide – localism has already proved itself capable of prevailing as a solution, even when all others fail. Then it is logical to conclude that the more localism you can achieve before all else fails, the better positioned you will be before the collapse.
And if a self-sufficient, self-reliant, local “ark” can be built, and better yet, a series of such “arks” built across an entire nation, such a collapse is likely to never even come. Above all, for the powers that conspire against the majority, they will be starved of their most crucial resources – our time, money, attention, and toil – all of which will be directly invested, locally, for us, by us.
Where to Start? Visit your local community garden, hackerspace or makerspace, FabLab, community lab, or farmer’s market. If these local institutions do not exist in your area, organize one (or more). Involved in one or more of these projects and want to share your story? Contact LocalOrg at firstname.lastname@example.org.