I have been a hunch that common sense is wrong. Specifically the common fear that life after the peak in availability of fossil fuels, especially oil. will be one of scarcity. Why? To understand that, we need to think about the psychology of the oil economy.

I suspect most people who live in societies dependent on oil know that oil will run out. Most of them hope it will not happen in their lifetime, or at least not until some as yet unknown new energy technology can seamlessly replace it. Whether or not they think about it consciously, they know that for the time being, maintaining their current standard of living depends on continuing to have the same share of oil-derived wealth, and lifting their standard of living depends on their ability to compete with others for a larger share.

In other words, oil-based economies don’t scale well. They can only grow as much, and as fast, as the rate of extraction of oil can grow. Just as a mainframe computer system, dependent on a central server, can only increase it’s processing capacity by increasing the power of the server. Contrast this with a cluster supercomputer, which increases its total processing power every time another computer is connected to the cluster. So if oil wells are the mainframe servers of our current economy, what would a ‘cluster economy’ look like?

A cluster economy could be based on a peer-to-peer network of self-sufficient communities, who share whatever they have in surplus across the network, according to an agreed set of trading protocols. Any time another community is added to the cluster, the overall productive capacity of the cluster is increased, rather than being a drain on the limited resource of oil. But what would be the energy source for the communities?

Simple, the sun. Communities could harvest sunlight directly, using passive solar building design to heat their homes, solar hot water systems etc. Also, using the sunlight harvesting technology of photosynthesis and the self-reproducing magic of DNA,  and food forest/ companion planting approaches, and given control over as much land space as they could farm, they could turn sunlight into food, fibre, even fuel - wood for fires, methane for cooking, ethanol and biodiesel for vehicles etc.

There’s no guarantee overall material wealth would be as great in a post-oil cluster economy as it is under the oil-based mainframe economy. Mind you there was no guarantee that informational wealth would be greater on the Internet than it was under the balkanized mainframes of the past. Either way, because this economy would be based on renewable resources, there would be an incentive to create more sunlight harvesting capacity, rather than an incentive to struggle with other people over shares in existing capacity. So regardless of whether or not certain material goods are objectively scarcer overall, the collective psychology of creativity and generosity growing out of the sustainability of the resource base, and the security of access, means that everyone *feels* like they are living in abundance.

The challenge is, to re-engineer a system of economic incentives that works on a kernel of scarcity, to become one that can support the emergence of the post-scarcity economy. A couple of interesting jumping-off points:

Yochai Benkler talking about “the wealth of networks” - innovation and sophisticated production emerging from decentralised networks of autonomous individuals and groups, rather than being driven by state-corporate actors: 

Adrian Johns on the history of piracy, particularly interesting is the parallel development of pirate versions of whole corporations.

Update 27/05/2011: Baboeska recently linked me to BitCoin, a protocol and free code software project to create a distributed, online currency, released under the MIT License.

Filed November 24th, 2010 under Uncategorized

In the last couple of years, I’ve had recurring problems running GNU/ Linux on my Toshiba Satellite A10. It ran Ubuntu reaonably happily from when I bought it second hand in early 2008, but a distro upgrade to Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) was the beginning of my troubles. I haven’t seen such persistent crashing of the graphical desktop since my Windows 98 days, and I quickly got sick of having to fix the X server

I hoped the upgrade to 9.10  (Kosmic Koala) would fix it, but it completely killed my install. I tried a clean install, no dice. Same with 10.04 (Lucid Lynx). despite it being a Long Term Service (LTS) release, and with 10.10 (Maverick Meercat). I tried other Debian/ Ubuntu variants, gNewSense, Pure:Dyne, Debian 5.0 (Lenny), and various versions of Xubuntu, and Mint, all to no avail.They would run ok for a few hours or days, then snowcrash.

In desperation, I tried switching to the Red Hat family, with PCLinuxOS. The GNOME version ran nicely as a livedisc, but crashed and burned when I tried to install it. The LXDE version installed and ran fine, and I would recommend it as a lightweight but full-featured GNU/ Linux for older hardware, but again, within a few hours of use the X server was repeatedly crashing.

For a while I thought my hard drive was dying. Then, while surfing a Mint forum, I found a link to a remix of Ubuntu, patched to work with the Intel 855 graphics chipset in the A10. I downloaded the “Lubuntu” LXDE version, burned a disc, installed it, and voila! The wireless didn’t work out of the box, but it’s a small price to pay for a PC that has been running for a few days with no crashes. Besides, I haven’t even tried to get the wireless working yet. Watch this space.

Filed November 9th, 2010 under Uncategorized
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