Craftsmanship for Creative Productivity

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

It seems a lot of retired men take up woodworking. At Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) I have met quite a few. Some are immensely talented and/or just have a huge storehouse of knowledge and experience. As with many fields of endeavor, only time and talent limit the depth and breadth of understanding possible in woodworking.

Description d un menuisier en travailOne of the most skilled of those I’ve met at SFCC is a woman who retired from a career as an ethnographer. In the typical class of 12 in the woodshop, ‘elder’ know-how is balanced by some very creative younger talent. It is a great experience to work with these folks. The environment is remarkably cooperative and supportive. Ideas and knowledge are shared; polite critiques and useful suggestions organically emerge from conversations about how to approach a problem of joinery, finishing technique or aesthetic design as a project evolves. It brings to mind an ideal image of how apprenticeships might have worked in shops producing for local communities and regional trade in the pre-industrial pre-corporate world of clear-air and artistry.


Industrial Furniture Production

Craftsmanship is not quite a lost art, though it might seem so. Industrial production, with its outsourced cheap mostly unskilled labor and highly automated production processes, has resulted in an overabundance of unimportant transitory products. Have you ever really thought about why a cable-television program such as “Storage Wars” exists?  So many people in so many suburbs across America have accumulated so much stuff, that a whole industry has developed just to store the overflow.

The glut of unused abandoned yet “valuable” consumer products that people are not yet willing to call waste, produces the ‘demand’ for all those commercial storage lockers. Without such ‘pre-waste’ there would be no need to find space for the overflow from garages where no cars can be parked because of the clutter.

Excessive extraction of materials needed to produce all that stuff, using gigantic mining and earth-moving equipment is seriously straining many living Earth systems, disrupting otherwise stable ecologies. The quantities of energy used, from mining to shipping to manufacturing to shipping again to warehousing to super-store display, are hard to grasp. It is all mechanized and automated to reduce labor costs in order to supply cheap stuff to feed the consumer culture. And they call it “progress.”

The whole global process is, of course, disrupting climate to a point fast approaching catastrophic collapse and global chaos. Too many “environmentalists” think we can fix the problem with new technology and substituting depleting resources with new materials. Instead of cutting back on their profligate consumerism, they want to “fix” the environment by recycling over-used materials and using just as much energy from more “sustainable” sources.

Instead, they could choose to live a less carbon-intensive “low-tech” life, buying only what they really need, goods the production of which is labor intensive rather than capital intensive. That would, of course, entail more work and more jobs. It would also entail a new great transformation in the way we live in relation to the planet and each other.

What if we all re-focused on smaller scale production of higher quality useful goods that last and require us to apply craftsmanship in their making? Many human-scale tools are available that require no energy inputs except those of the human head and hand to get the same work done.


Nutrient Rich Organic Produce

Oh, but that would take more time to produce. Yes, and that would mean jobs, jobs, jobs! Everyone could have one. More people are turning to human-scale production. As it turns out, small organic farms are significantly more productive than giant factory farms are. They also restore soils to a natural state in which they provide the nutrients missing in industrial agriculture. Given the power of the neo-liberal corporate industrial economy, making the transition to a viable low carbon emissions future is the hard part. We have the tools. We just need to figure out how to transform extractive economies into ecological communities.

The experience of making meaningful things (or performing meaningful services) is exactly what is missing in our declining perpetual-growth industrial economy and is exactly the economic model needed for mitigation of climate chaos and for ecological restoration. Look for hand-crafted products, locally made. Become a “locavore.”  It’s our choice: Creativity or Catastrophe.

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part I: From Growth to Development

Economists are often confused by their own wallowing in esoteric but useless mathematical formulations of unquantifiable human complexities. But we just can’t afford their foolishness anymore. Investment in infrastructure is desperately needed, but not by merely restoring the infrastructure of the old growth economy. That needs to be replaced by a new viable infrastructure for an ecological society. This paradigm shift will require re-thinking core economic ideas to transform economic and social relations.

Great Recession Redux
Old notions die hard. Case in point: the recent/current “Great Recession” of 2008 was/is the inevitable outcome of endless-growth economic policy – which is also destroying the ecosphere upon which we depend. Yet political and financial elites cling to their failed economic ideas. Some politically ignored but eminent economists have cut through that veil of illusion. Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and especially Joseph Stiglitz – only two of whom are Nobel laureates – see right through it. No complex mysterious forces of economic nature beyond human understanding were at work. Just centralized financial power and greed were enough.

More important, the political-economic response protected the perpetrators and perpetuated the economics of ecological disaster. I love Joseph Stiglitz’s metaphor on how it went down. A deranged paramedic rushes the DWI culprit to the hospital, leaving his victim to bleed out on the street. Similarly, Wall Street’s gamblers were bailed out while the American people were left with a newly bloated national debt. Time for a paradigm shift.

Responding to Crisis
The same accelerating concentration of wealth, and faltering employment and wages that accompanied the housing bubble continue today. The “solution” proposed by most economists is either to “grow” our way out or cut government spending — more plutocratic ideology. The real solution is clear: Resuscitate the victim and charge the perpetrators for their crimes. Neither has happened or is about to. As the combined climate-disruption and economic-instability crisis intensifies, we may see a surge of interest in an ecological economic policy that can slow climate disruption while stimulating a viable economy.

Aside from prosecuting Wall Street criminals, let’s look at the economic-ecologic mess that we’re in and how it might be fixed. With a trillion dollar loss in housing wealth, the American unemployed and under-employed cannot engage in the spending that would stimulate the economy. And the financial geniuses of Wall Street can still borrow from the Fed at near zero interest with “quantitative easing.” They can “lend” that money to the government for a few percent more. It’s a totally secure investment for the plutocrats using none of their own “reserves.” Don’t look to Wall Street for a solution.

The biggest corporations have no incentive to invest their huge cash reserves in the faltering economy. Without evidence of demand, they will hold onto their cash. As a bonus, they get to keep hundreds of billions of their cash income overseas and avoid income tax. Bottom line: neither the corporate nor financial elite will solve the crisis they created. These scofflaws will act to increase their power and wealth until the government bails them out of the next crisis they cause.

Ecological Infrastructure
Both the Keynesian and ecological economists would invest in infrastructure to improve both employment and economic health. This would stimulate demand in the economy and give the corporations a reason to invest in production. But just stimulating “economic growth,” without an ecologically grounded industrial policy would be like a band-aid without adhesive, or worse. Instead, a public investment policy heavily weighted toward investment in the replacement of carbon-based with carbon-neutral energy production is necessary. Throw in a living wage as public policy and the result will be a vibrant economy with minimized climate disruption.

Part II of this essay will discuss how infrastructure investment can energize the economy, but not by inducing unfettered “growth” for its own sake. Instead, we need big investments in stable ecologically viable development that simply retires the old fossil-fuel energy production and builds new industry for an ecological economy. Significant displacements of existing economic institutions will accompany such change, but they are necessary. The societal rewards will be immense.