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Exploring Resilience Communities with John Robb (1): definition

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
13th September 2008


John Robb, master analyst of global guerilla warfare, is very pessimistic about the potential of the current global system to prevail. This means that he expects, like us, a strong trend towards relocalization. However, his vision is more radical since he expects a global breakdown. Hence, the need for a distributed network of resilient local communities, that can thrive amongst the chaos. However, it is not survivalism he is advocating, but local communities connected with global tinkering networks, supported by smart local and international network technology, and that are hyperproductive compared to the nation-state.

In other words, John Robb is moving into the same style of thinking and seeking for solutions that is characteristic of other ‘peer to peer thinkers’ (and doers), and it is time to present his thinking more extensively.

We’ll do that in two parts. First, a general presentation of resilience; then, in the next installment, we focus on the constituent parts. We will quote liberally but not fully, so please go to the original articles for more extensive context and treatment.

Good complements to John Robb are the similar and complementary explorations by Eric Hunting, Steve Bosserman, Dave Pollard, and Jeff Vail, with Marcin Jakubowski as the ultimate practicioner.

So, how does he define resilient communites?

John Robb:

This conceptual model creates a set of new services that allow the smallest viable subset of social systems, the community (however you define it), to enjoy the fruits of globalization without being completely vulnerable to its excesses. These services are configured to provide the ability to survive an extended disconnection from the global grid

The resilient community has broad applicability beyond just improving the ability of those of us in developed economies to preserve wealth and a quality of life despite severe system shocks. It can also be applied to the problems of counter-insurgency in semi-modern urban environment (to radically update a process that was built for the last century) and provide the potential for organic development in underdeveloped areas of the world. The key is that we need to support the open source efforts currently underway to expand this capability underway such as the transition towns movement to MIT’s low tech solutions effort.”

What is his rationale for resilient communities? Answer: the coming state failure.

He writes:

As you watch the global financial system continue to unravel this fall, think hard what it will take to prevent rampant state failure in a chaotic global market system that has already weakened (privatized, hollowed out, and bankrupted) nation-states across the entire landscape.”

Given the depth of the crisis, the emergence of such resilient communities are nearly inevitable, he argues:

“* Local is the only choice. The ability of the global system to dampen instability and prevent failure is nearing zero. We have neither the organizational frameworks necessary for global governance nor the precise tools of global policy required (even IF we were smart enough to manage something this complex). Any chance of real global change must start at the ground level by correcting the true sources of the problem and spread virally. Resilient communities eliminate nearly all of the drivers towards global instability and mitigate the effects of instability already in the system. It’s self-reinforcing.

* RCs guard against systemic decay and catastrophic failure. Survivalism assumes isolation, hoarding, and subsistence means to preserve only the bare essentials of life (the Jeremiah Johnson scenario). It’s an approach that guarantees only long term privation and nearly inevitable failure. In contrast, resilient communities replace increasingly unreliable and expensive global sourcing of energy, food, etc. with locally efficient (and offer higher quality) alternatives. It also provides the ultimate level of protection against superempowered threats and hollow states. As a result, it preserves an existing quality of life (or lays the foundations for the creation of one where it didn’t exist before).

* RCs offer a path to accelerating returns. In contrast to the isolation of survivalism, the RC is community driven — both within the community’s physical environs and across similar efforts (via data connectivity). As such, it will benefit (we are already seeing this) from rapid rates of innovation available through open source development — across the entire range of activities from energy to food to product fabrication. Relatively quickly, the solutions generated from these efforts will convert a community that was once a black hole of economic productivity into its exact opposite: a fount of accelerating wealth and life improvement that is orders of magnitude more efficient in its use of mass, energy, space, time, and information.”

Resilient communities are a result of superempowerment created by distributed networking, he explains:

Most important to our analysis is how this change superempowers small groups, allowing them to accomplish activities normally reserved for large corporations or governments.

The keys to this superempowerment are:

* Better tools. Moore’s law, Carlson curves, and personal fabrication (DIY everything, the start of an exponential rate of improvement for matter/products). Shift from centralized production to ‘grow’ your own computer/chemicals etc. Local energy.

* Rapidly expanding network resources. How to’s on everything. Basic education via open courseware (from the best Universities in the world). Sensor networks. Spimes.

* New social connectivity. Expert networks. Tinkering via open source development. Telecommuting. Wisdom of crowds and crowd-sourcing.

Unfortunately, this supempowerment makes it possible for small groups to do incredible damage to global society. Fortunately, it also making it possible for resilient communities to efficiently and productively emulate global production/services locally. As a result, the resilient community isn’t a step backwards to 19th Century approaches (survivalism, scarcity, and low productivity), but rather a move in a direction that makes it possible to generate rapid and sustained (as opposed to the relative stasis and irregular progress of the current system) improvements how we live.

Commentary:

Here’s a comment by Jeff Vail, author of the Theory of Power:

“I think that John Robb takes the most implementable and realistic approach to improving decentralized resiliency by placing the locus of self-sufficiency at the community level. However, I think that the ideal approach is to view the drive to replace hierarchal and centralized processes with a scale-free or fractal approach to self-sufficiency. In a dystopian view of the future resilient communities become indistinguishable from networks of feudal fiefs and manors. The key, in my opinion, to maintaining the participatory, egalitarian, and advancing mode of community is that it must be composed of individuals and sub-community groups that are equally self-sufficient and resilient. A community made up of people who depend on the good governance of community leaders is a recipe for localized totalitarianism, and even communities that begin in egalitarian, representative fashion will trend toward localized centralization, localized autocracy unless the components cut the same ties of dependency on and control by the community support structure that Resilient Communities seek to cut from the global system. Additionally, while some forms of self-sufficient production may be most appropriate at the community, or even bio-regional level, others may prove most efficient at a much lower level: water collection, storage, and purification; energy for home heating and cooling; substantial food production; etc. While it may be most realistic to target the Resilient Community theory at community organizers, this theory should at least encourage those organizers to actively facilitate the creation of scale-free self-sufficiency within their communities.”

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6 Responses to “Exploring Resilience Communities with John Robb (1): definition”

  1. Michel Bauwens Says:

    A comment from Dave Pollard, refracted from an email discussion:

    (Dave refers to his book at http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/finding_the_sweet_spot:paperback)

    Everybody wants to change the world, as the song goes. This decade seems to be the “decade of design”, since everyone seems to believe that proper design is the solution to all the world’s problems. While I am in total agreement with John Robb’s and Jeff Vail’s forecast, and ideas, I share the view of John Gray (“Straw Dogs”) that imposed or even urgently-suggested design solutions will not work.

    These days I’m involved in two major initiatives: One to create model “Natural Enterprises” that are community-based, socially responsible, egalitarian, environmentally sustainable, and self-sufficient (my book on this — link below — has just been published); and the other to create model Natural (Intentional) Communities — that demonstrate a better way to live. So a collection of Natural Enterprises within each Natural Community, networked together, creates a Natural Economy.

    I’ve spent a huge amount of time researching both subjects and getting involved in the IC movement. And I’ve learned that there are lots of good models out there, and explanations of the design and principles that have made them good. And I’ve also learned that nobody cares. At one point I thought the situation just wasn’t desperate enough, and that when the industrial economy and civilization society collapses people will be grateful for such well-designed, tested and well-thought-out models of a better way to live and make a living.

    But they won’t. History demonstrates that we don’t follow good models, any more than, when they were the fad in the 1990s, we employed “best practices”. These things are fun to design and think about and talk about, but it is not human nature for people to create things this way. We start from the context we know (as flawed as it may be). That means that, when civilization falls, we will see communities all over the world trying different experiments based not on brilliant blueprints from groups like us, but on what they know and believe.

    The best we can hope for is that, if we start now creating some models, ourselves, humiliatingly small, ignored models that actually work, then those with experience of these models will know to recreate them after civilization’s collapse. If we’ve done our work well, not on the design table but on the ground, learning from our design failures, then those models will thrive and our descendants and those who’ve lived with us will thank us.

    It is likely that the majority will instead try to recreate what they remember, what failed, and they will likewise fail. They won’t read us, they won’t listen to us, no matter how articulate and brilliant and proven our ideas.

    If we really want to develop resilient communities, let’s do it. Let’s organize some people who know and care about this and wotk together to design and build something that should work, and then learn from it so that, with some ciontinuous refinements, it does work.

    We don’t need another theory, another design. We need people who will start work, now, to build the model that will enable the survivors of the crash to create something that is reslient, and not repeat the mistakes they should have learned.

    If we do that, together, our greatest lesson will be how utterly ignorant we are, even now, of what is really needed, and how astonishingly much we’ve forgotten that must be relearned.

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Here’s an additional reaction from Vinay Gupta, also refracted from our email discussion.

    Vinay Gupta:

    It’s a total waste of time doing this stuff in the developed world. There are highly functional, highly capitalized established alternatives with total political support: there’s just no freaking way to really effect deep transformation here. People don’t want deep transformation in culturally significant numbers: they want to be told that what they are doing now is OK and, as soon as their cars are electric and the power comes from plastic solar panels, it by and large will be. At least until the soil dies.

    In the developing world, however, where people are dying on the streets for lack of sanitation and livelihood, all of this makes massively more sense. People need solutions, right the hell now, and they’re dying at the rate of roughly 36 million a year for the lack of them – more than half of all human death is death from poverty as far as I can tell from the WHO numbers.

    http://guptaoption.com – Soft Development Paths kinda puts this into context – 4+ bn people who have no realistic path to a better life, and need one, and it’s going to be based around distributed infrastructure because there’s just no other model that stands any chance of working without depriving them of food security by herding them together into unstable cities where the first global economic hiccup will starve them to death where they stand.

    And, yes, we came close to that this year with the whole biofuels price spike. If the banks go down, and they are headed that way according to a lot of finance guys, it could be *vastly* worse on the urban poor than anybody has modeled yet.

    I realize this isn’t quite the positive message that folks might want to hear, but it’s deeply realistic and grounded in solid numerical thinking. With cheap solar, and yes, we do have it now, the western lifestyle in it’s current form can be made pretty sustainable – not perfectly so, but mostly – and that’s going to remove a lot of the need for radical adaptations in how society functions. The place where the radical change is needed and possible is the developing world, where people are dying at a vast scale, and in ways which clean energy alone is not going to fix.

    Carbon emissions are yesterday’s unsolved problem. Now we know how to solve the problem profitably and conveniently: nanosolar and the rest of those cheap solar companies put the solution on the table already. Production needs to scale from 1GW a year of panels to maybe 1000 times that. But that’s a standard industrial scaling problem for what must be a very, very profitable business, and at that point… trust me on this, CO2 is not going the big issue. 40% of the human race’s CO2 emissions are coal, and as soon as we get better battery technology, the same basic solution will take out oil as batteries displace gasoline and diesel.

    The only rational action on CO2 at this point is to accelerate this transformation. Nothing else really matters.

    In terms of intentional communities, I *absolutely* recommend a visit to:

    http://www.thefarm.org/

    Let me finish with a quote from, ahem, St. Milton Friedman:

    We do not influence the course of events by persuading people that we are right when we make what they regard as radical proposals. Rather, we exert influence by keeping options available when something has to be done at a time of crisis. –Milton Friedman

    Now, much as we malign Milt for things like, I dunno, his collegial letter to Pinochet and much that has been done in his name, there is a damn good point here: change is easiest in times of crisis. But you have to accurately identify the crisis: it’s not in the cozy homes of the developed world, it’s in the ghettos and especially the villages, where well over half of the human race struggle and die in ways that these simple approaches to community resilience could prevent. That is where the crisis is, and that’s the opportunity to transform lives.

    Look to the poor, thats where the revolution will happen.

    Vinay

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    [...] P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Exploring Resilience Communities with John Robb (1): def… – John Robb, master analyst of global guerilla warfare, is very pessimistic about the potential of the current global system to prevail. This means that he expects, like us, a strong trend towards relocalization. However, his vision is more radical since he expects a global breakdown. Hence, the need for a distributed network of resilient local communities, that can thrive amongst the chaos. However, it is not survivalism he is advocating, but local communities connected with global tinkering networks, supported by smart local and international network technology, and that are hyperproductive compared to the nation-state. [...]

  6. Todd Davies Says:

    In reading the comments it seems that many think that these are academic or not applicable in developed countries.

    I’d encourage anyone interested to have a look at Larry Quick and Fred Presley’s work at the Resilient Futures Network where they are putting all of this theory into practice on live projects in the United States and Australia.

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