Resilience in a Service Economy

Thursday, August 30, 2012

If Walter Russel Mead is right and "the future of employment is in services and the production of experiences," then we have ourselves a math problem. In "The Post-Manufacturing World" Mead predicts the 21st century will see manufacturing transformed just like agriculture in the 20th: machines (in this case fancy robots) will replace low-skilled manual labor. Even China's (in)famous Foxconn is planning to make the switch.

Good, right? Who wouldn't rather see our iPhones cranked out by a machine than by a warehouse of human chattel destroying their fingers in 12-hour shifts? Just as the tractor freed millions of farm hands to find manufacturing jobs in the city, now robots will free the factory workers to join the creative economy.

There is a crucial difference between the mechanization of agriculture and of manufacturing, though. Agricultural surplus feeds the factory workers, but a gadget surplus will not feed the service workers.

Fundamentally, every human economy is the same. It takes carbon -- originally known as food -- unlocks the solar energy inside, and uses that energy to do things that we like, the first and foremost of which is to make sure we have more food to eat. A successful human economy is one where this loop is efficient, leaving us with more carbon and thus energy than we needed to procure it. That way people can afford to pursue other passions.

Industrial agriculture's success is built on its openness to novel forms of carbon. Hunter-gatherers relied on natural systems to produce edible food, which required a lot of land per person. Pre-industrial agriculture relied heavily on human and animal labor (read: burning food) to push the process. Industrial agriculture takes carbon in more pure forms -- wood, coal, oil -- and burns that to push the process instead. Now the food burners can do other things with their energy.

This works as long as the carbon supply lasts, because our current system doesn't produce more of the stuff it relies on. In this respect industrial agriculture is more like the hunter-gathers than like the pre-industrial farmers. It relies on natural systems (very slow ones) to have produced its carbon input already. This takes a lot of land per human lifespan. More land, in fact, than exists.

Against this backdrop, today's Chinese factories are actually more sustainable than the future being proposed. Like the pre-tractor farm hands, they're taking the carbon they eat and turning it directly into the products our economy demands. Replace them all with robots and they will still eat the same amount of carbon, and the robots will eat additional carbon, unless they're wind- or solar-powered. That system will require even more land, and that land still doesn't exist.

Now, this ship has probably sailed. For as long as the carbon lasts, consumers will demand new manufactured goods and the economy will reward manufacturers who use mechanization to cut costs. Only when carbon becomes hard or expensive to come by will the so-called service economy find itself running short on goods and food.

Communities that want to weather this storm should begin asking a few questions:

(1) Where could our food come from if industrial agriculture falters, due to climate instability or energy scarcity or both?

(2) Assuming we stay well fed, what all could we do (and even enjoy!) with the energy in our bodies that would contribute to a more efficient carbon-to-activity-to-carbon loop? Growing food? Developing non-carbon-based energy sources? Something else?

(3) How can our community take these activities and spin them into lasting enterprises that will sustain our local economy, while also helping the larger economy inch from industrial agriculture toward something more sustainable?

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