by Susan Donderewicz:

The following is a transcript of a presentation made during a meeting on community economics in Steuben County in May of 2008:

I’ve been given just fifteen minutes, so I’ve narrowed my topic to the history of civilization. With a special emphasis on the future, since this is part of the progression, it just hasn’t happened yet. When I envision an economy of a particular time and place, I picture a machine, and the first place to look is how the machine is powered, what makes this economy go. The ancient Egyptians had an economy that created the pyramids, the Sphinx, all those ancient works of art. I refer to that bulwark of historical accuracy, Hollywood, for a glimpse of how that system worked. The “Ten Commandments” showed scene after scene of the masses of people working hard from dawn to dusk, their lives were nothing but endless work. I thought as I was growing up that this was because they used primitive methods to provide for their basic needs. However, during my Hippie experience, I lived off a garden using a pickaxe, cutting wood with a bow saw. It took about half a day, on the average, to fill my needs. The rest of my day was free for courses at the community college, visiting friends, etc. So why were the Egyptian masses working so hard? Where was all that effort going? The Egyptian economy was a machine shaped like a giant pyramid, with the huge majority at the bottom, a lesser number of immediate supervisors just above them, on up to a very small group at the top: a hierarchy. The people at the bottom powered the machine with that labor beyond which they performed for their own benefit, this excess they unwillingly contributed upwards through the machine to the controllers at the top. The huge amount of wealth and power wielded by the people at the top originated from the workers at the bottom. Very little benefit came back down to the workers—supervision, for sure, and police presence, quite probably. The Egyptian economy was powered by the exploitation of the masses.

We see the same thing during the Roman Empire: a hierarchy powered by the exploitation of the masses. The foreign wars of the Romans (funded by the masses) brought back resources stolen from abroad as well as slaves to do more work for the empire. During the Dark Ages, the church kept civilization alive with its hierarchical organization that also was built on the labor of the masses. The Industrial Revolution saw nations that launched conquering armies, all provided by the labor of coal miners, farmers, and industrial workers. Today’s economy, especially that segment of the machine which is specific to our country, exploits the resource of oil. Even such a potent energy source as oil is not enough to satisfy our current hierarchy. The masses are called upon for considerable taxes and enticed into consumption far beyond their needs. All this keeps the people working one or two full-time jobs. Even with all that, our economy cannot survive without yearly borrowing of half a billion dollars.

The hierarchy has been with us for so long that it seems inconceivable to live without it. Actually, people born into this system have no choice but to accept their place or start a bloody revolution. Can we even conceive of a world without hierarchy? Are humans capable of living free of the hierarchical system? Here in America, we are totally dependent upon our economic hierarchy for all our needs: food, fuel, health care, protection from criminals, etc. Can anyone who is dependent for all needs ever be free? Who in this room feels free to say something negative about his or her job? So much for freedom of speech. How about making a statement that will appear in the paper tomorrow, negative but true about the company you work for? So much for freedom of the press. Freedom must be economic freedom. Freedom is not possible without economic independence.

There will come a time when the resource of oil runs out, just like any other underground deposit. Our fantastic economic machine will disappear and we will experience a transformation of biblical proportions. Like any change, this will be difficult but will also bring on opportunities. I think of the first year or two of this change as the transition, and we should probably spend an entire meeting (or more) discussing what this will be like, and how to prepare for it. Before we leave tonight, I will suggest a short list of things we all should do to make it possible to survive the transition, and help others get through it.

After a year or two, we will hopefully have adjusted to life without oil. I expect that communities will take on an importance we haven’t known in our lifetimes. We will solve many of our problems working together; many victories will be shared victories. We should probably spend one whole public meeting (or more) discussing what this future will be like, and how to prepare for it. Especially since right now, we can order supplies online and get them delivered through the mail. Right after the transition, we will need to make do with whatever is at hand, so small preparations will make the future ever so much easier.

But since time is short, and I only have fifteen minutes, I want to get right to what I think is the most important message I can convey tonight: Can we use this juncture to rebuild society without the hierarchy? Our economic hierarchy, the dragon that is beyond our control, will dissolve as soon as it no longer has the oil it needs to feed on. We don’t have to foment a revolution; it will disappear on its own. We don’t even need to be brave. We must be smart about how we rebuild. Let me suggest voluntary rules of interpersonal behavior, like the various codes of honor throughout history that became tradition, which can accomplish our goal of building a society free of the hierarchy. We must make it a matter of honor for every able-bodied person to provide his or her own food. Every able-bodied person should clean up after himself or herself. Do not provide food for an able-bodied person, regardless of what that person will pay you. I’m talking about the time after the transition. During the transition, of course we will take care of unprepared people who are in great need.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, this is an opportunity to take a giant step in human progress, the best such opportunity likely to come by in the history of civilization. This is the one and only time that a great enterprise such as that built on oil will disintegrate when the resource runs out. It leaves us with an educated populace and technologies already developed such as windmills and solar panels, the computer and the internet, tractors, electrical tools, birth control, and the washing machine, and so many others. By necessity we will become self-sufficient to survive. By working in communities we can provide the luxuries of electrical power, public transportation, communication, fire protection, education, and the arts. We can make the choice at that time not to become the bottom tier of yet another hierarchy. This could be a step in the well-being of humanity tantamount to the Magna Charta or the Bill of Rights.

As for the transition, we won’t have much prior notice. Who can predict when the availability of oil reaches that critical low? So don’t you or anyone you care about go into any winter without enough potatoes to live on through the winter, plant in the spring, and live on until that first crop has grown. That’s probably 50 or 100 pounds for each family member. Know where there’s a spring or some water source that doesn’t require electricity. Get a wood stove and set it up or be sure you have everything you need to set it up. Have a firearm and ammunition: we want to take care of needy people, but desperate people do desperate things. If you don’t live where you can survive that first winter, make some arrangement to go stay with someone in a place you can survive. A shoebox full of vegetable seeds will make you a very welcome houseguest. For all of us, this will be an experience in getting along with others under crowded conditions. There are other easy preparations, like planting fruit trees, which we should discuss at a future meeting. Thank you all for coming tonight. Maybe the most important thing we can do is coming together and communicating.