“The Long Doom”

Dougald Hine was talking to Long Now London last week about “the Long Doom”: what an extended economic decline might mean for the way we live our lives. Dougald is part of the Institute for Collapsonomics, and is interested in how – well, a collapse would effect us: how we interact with objects and each other.

He was keen to point out that he is an optimist with a strong belief in the resilience of the human race. That said, he thinks that by asking pretty fundamental questions we can prepare for what might happen. In this context, an extended economic decline. Dougald’s approach is that the questions matter, and he doesn’t have the answers – the questions are a starting point for the debate, helping us to imagine a range of different futures.

Most people think the future is going to be like today, only better. With economic decline, though, “better” might just be different. Decline could be a long, slow extended process or a catastrophic fall. Apparently, we might bounce back the latter faster – with a gradual inexorable contraction, knowledge would be lost.

Dougald envisaged

  • products which are designed with economy in mind – easy to fix and recycle, open to hacking and redevelopment – “convivial design”
  • changing relationships to workspaces, homes, and “the third place, requiring different forms of architecture and building as we “huddle around the fire”
  • different forms of working and consumption – more co-operative working (finally producing the flatter structures and “extended organisations” that management gurus have been pushing for the past couple of decades) and a return to older models of consumption (local shops and markets appearing more sustainable than megamarkets)
  • a focus on creating easily maintained infrastructure – botch-and-patch if one can’t rely on central services to fix everything.

As often happens, the discussion after the talk was illuminating and interesting. Dougald didn’t really cover social and political structures, but these would change a lot. If transport becomes difficult (an assumption, I think, behind the move from supermarkets to local retail), what would hold Britain together (and larger countries would have bigger problems!)? It was the coming of railways which introduced a standard time to Britain – before that, local time was the norm. Without transport, could the center hold? It seems to me that all possible decisions would be devolved to a local level, whether planned or out of necessity.

There would probably be de-industrialisation and a move away from cities and towns – a return to the rural economy; @hexayurt suggested this might be driven by a need to secure a supply of food – it is easier to grow your own than rely on someone else to meet your needs.

Someone else (and it might have been Dougald!) posited that our view of identity would change, too – as co-operatives become a valid way of organising economic activity (out of necessity), we might return to a more tribal view of ourselves.

It was a fascinating discussion; a little scary – simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. Still, best to be prepared…

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