Saturday, July 3, 2010

Surge Capacity

Just now, the Farm is closed to outside visitors. This is the week of the Farm's annual family reunion, called Ragweed. Over the nearly 40 years of the Farm's history, thousands of people have lived here at one time or another, and now most of the people who have some history and affiliation with the Farm live elsewhere. In the first week of July, many of them come back for a week of shared meals, live music, and other activities that keep the bonds of the Farm's far-flung community vital.

Merry, the ETC innkeeper, and I made up a number of extra beds in the ETC dormatories with the expectation that we would be getting a lot of drop-in guests for Ragweed. That didn't happen. We have just one family of four, a couple with two young children, staying at the Inn. Fewer people than expected showed up for Ragweed, but even so, the population of the Farm at the moment is about twice what it was last week. The additional people are not staying at the Inn, so where are they? One Farmie told me that most people are staying with friends or family members on the Farm.

Many buildings on the Farm that once housed 30 or more people now house only a couple or even a solitary individual. When members of the Farm's Changeover diaspora re-converge on the Farm for Ragweed, those now mostly empty dwellings can easily accommodate a temporary surge in population without having to draw upon the capacity of the Inn.

Many visitors to the Farm notice the front gate, the low population density and the fact that the average Farmie is considerably older than the average USAnian, and they come to the conclusion that the Farm is “a retirement community for aging Hippies.” I too have entertained this characterization of the Farm, but when I realized that the Farm could double its population without even having to call upon the housing capacity of the Inn, I saw the community in a new light and was reminded of my recent conversation with Jeff Vail. In particular, the influx of temporary Ragweed population called to mind the notion of surge capacity, which Jeff describes as follows:

Jeff Vail: I think that everything from the way I see legal practice management work in my immediate profession to the reason that Chaco Canyon and the Chacoan civilization collapsed can be related back to surge capacity. 
I should also back up and say that Kevin Carson has written a fascinating book called The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto that focuses on the importance of overhead costs. If you have high overhead costs then you tend to have to create enough revenue to always be meeting that overhead, and so you try to maintain a consistent maximal output from all of your assets. And when you do that, you don't have the ability to either accept a dramatically lower output for a short while or to really surge when there's some new demand that requires that you rise to the challenge and dramatically increase output for a while. 
So, in law practice that might be if you expect your attorneys to work 70 hours per week, and then a huge new case comes in. Well, you've already been working 70 hours a week. What are you going to do? You can work more, and the performance dramatically drops off, or you can squeeze the work into the time available. Either way is not a good option. 
The same thing [holds true] with Chaco Canyon. Chaco was a central site that would redistribute food production from communities in the North and South which were usually only one at a time subject to a drought. So, as long as communities in the North produced in most years twice as much food as they needed, and the same with communities in the South, then when there was a severe drought on one side, Chaco Canyon could administer the re-distribution of food to make sure that everyone got fed.
But gradually, because this re-distribution was fairly efficient, and because they had several good years of weather in a row, populations would rise in both the North and the South to where their food production equaled their local requirements. Then when there was a drought in either the North or the South, there was not enough food to re-distribute. So that lead to increasingly totalitarian government structures. That lead to more extreme farming methods that depleted the soils, etc. Eventually when there were combined droughts, that lead to the collapse of the civilization. 
So, I think those are two very different attempts to explain surge capacity. I think that in general terms if you have the ability to get by on a fraction of what you are capable of, you're in a lot better situation; whether that's food production, water, money, you name it. Because then, when there's a unique demand, you have the ability to rise to meet that challenge.  
KMO: Well, another long-running theme on the C-Realm Podcast is my effort to build awareness of the notion that efficiency is, in many respects, the opposite of resilience and that the more you streamline, the more you put to use excess capacity, the more you eliminate duplication and redundancy, the less surge capacity you're going to have; the less resilient you're going to be when unexpected conditions arise. And I think a really good illustration of this is the single-income family, say, of the 1950s, where you had a bread-winner and a home-maker. 
If something should happen to the bread-winner, the home-maker could go to work and bring in some income. And if you don't have much debt; if your house is paid off and whatnot, and something really bad happens and you need money, you can get a mortgage, or you can go into some debt and have some expectation of coming out of it again. But if you've got both husband and wife already working 50 hours a week, and you've already got your credit cards maxed out, and you've already got a second mortgage, and something happens to one of those bread-winners, then you don't really have any surge capacity. You're screwed.
Jeff: I think that if you were going to try to envision the ideal, resilient, high surge capacity, domestic economy, you'd have husband and wife (or partner and partner) maybe both working in the “traditional economy” 10 hours a week each, and then working maybe in a much more community-focused organization or production capacity 10 hours a week each, and then maybe working  in domestic production, e.g. gardening or some other form of domestic production, ten hours a week each. That shows a pushing for localized self-sufficiency. It's not a very efficient system, but I think it has a lot of surge capacity. Probably either one of those people working 10 hours a week maintains enough proficiency or expertise in whatever their traditional state economy area of specialty is that they could surge if they had to. 
I think that's really the direction... maybe just one visualization of a direction in which we could be pushing. But that's certainly not compatible with the goals of the state economy.

One can look at the Farm's fallow fields and low population density, it's skewed age demographic and the barriers to entry for young people and describe the situation as a group of aging Baby Boomers who kept the long hair and the beards but abandoned the communitarian values of the Old Farm. I've heard many visitors to the ETC level this exact charge. I'm not saying that this is a completely inaccurate characterization or that the Farm doesn't need to take a hard look at the implications of admission standards that screen out young people who have a lot of passion and energy but little portable income. At the same time I can hold a view of the Farm in its current state as maintaining a much needed surge capacity that might well prove invaluable should unexpected conditions arise and the former Farmies living out in the general population find themselves in need of a familiar and welcoming refuge in rural Tennessee.

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