How big is your zero?

By Gene Miller, June 2014

Deep change, driven by non-negotiable ecological imperatives, is coming. But which form will it take?

Is there anything worse on this entire planet than discovering you’re fresh out of three-colour couscous (or the Italian tricoloré, if you’ve outgrown screw-top through a straw) when you’re cooking tender lamb tagine and pan-seared rustic vegetables? How the hell does that happen? Just the other day, there was a boxful of the stuff, right next to the Medjool dates. What, did the kids feed it to the ducks? Well, now dinner’s ruined.

No, no it isn’t! I bring you great tidings! Bulk Barn! Open ’til 9.

Yes, Bulk Barn, in the 700 block of Yates, just east of Douglas. Used to be a postal outlet there. Now, it’s five long aisles of bulk everything, and the place is...well, let’s just say that Heaven has a new postal code. Honestly, do you think you can live another day without backup couscous, a kilo of black rice (beautiful looking stuff, by the way), or purple prairie barley? 

Apart from the undeniable if unhealthy cornucopian pleasures, and the opportunity to sin (“No Sampling Please”), what we all love about bulk is the assumed economy—that sold by volume and brand-anonymized, bulk food costs less than the same product boxed, jarred, canned or foil-bagged. You work out the math on your tiny mental blackboard...and yes, it’s a consumer victory! It took humanity forever to figure out that you pay for but can’t eat costly packaging, and that brand names, with a diminishing number of exceptions, stopped being signifiers of quality years ago.

But this is not a lengthy panegyric about the virtues of bulk macaroni or gummy candy. We have serious matters to address. Though I should note that Bulk Barn does carry gummy European Renaissance cathedrals (code 2261), and gummy Modigliani nudes (code 2274), which I haven’t seen anywhere else. Okay, I made that up.

What I am not making up, however, is a growing sense—one you may share—that we are presently living through the last chapter of an old and nearly exhausted story. I don’t want to construct an entire liberation theology around the bulk food metaphor, but I do hear a seditious and provocative question whispering within the bulk food phenomenon: Do you need to own the car, or use the car?

This sensibility is infectiously spreading to other areas of social and consumer life; not just bulk food or share cars, but share bicycles, share tools and innovative shared offices. Or Airbnb, an online B&B service that has created a virtual global hotel simply by aggregating people’s available, rentable spare bedrooms everywhere. Or Soylent, a mordantly named but apparently healthful “food powder” that liberates the user from supermarket consumption and relegates other forms of eating to recreation. (Its creator, musing on the potential to create a Soylent-producing algae that would end farmland and food resource wars, says: “Mankind’s oldest problem—hunger—would be solved.”) Add to this list of social collaborations the burgeoning local living economy movement; and toss in micro apartment suites whose small size implies less need for stuff and more shared experience outside the home. (You may have noticed that coffee shops are the new urban agora.) 

Empowered by the Internet’s unique ability to create informed networks and communities of interest at any scale, folks are coming to the realization that an un-ridden bike is an under-used bike, and that more efficient use of fewer cars might be more useful than just more cars. 

All of this represents the wet edge of a profound shift of thought and practice toward “ecological” utility. It asks not only do you need to own or just use a car but, more loosely, what’s driving you? What and why, really, do you need to own, to personally possess? For the several pre-millennial generations of us raised in a regime of self-worth calibrated entirely to acquisition and personal possession, such shocking questions point toward subversive prospects: identity liberated from the burden of exclusivity. Can you live with no-name you? Are you still there? 

Bearing strongly on that last question, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren recounts:

“After dinner, Larry [Laurence Summers, Obama’s former director of the US National Economic Council, who led the bailout and deregulation of the ‘too big to fail’ mega-banks] leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice. I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and powerful people listen to what they have to say.” (But insiders can never criticize other insiders.)

Might the insurrectionary and terrifying “do you need to own the car, or use the car?” give Summers and his powerful confreres unquiet sleep?

We understand that the Larry Summers of the world derive much of their power simply from the disequilibrium baked into the present economic system. But isn’t nature’s increasing revolt a clear ecological metaphor, a message about limits, telling us that we’ve exhausted the consumerist paradigm—its values and its practices? What will happen if a dawning trend today, fuelled by the connectivity and aggregating power of the Internet, turns into a form of broad-scale economic mutiny tomorrow?

Such speculations come at a moment crucial to the restoration of social sanity and the return to power of the public realm, so that the interests of Koch Industries or Keystone Pipeline’s proponents don’t seem to be balanced, in some parody of reason, against the well-being and long-term prospects of humanity. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, captures the paradox in a recent Guardian piece:

“Confronting these various structural barriers to the next economy is critical work. But we also have to confront how the mismatch between climate change and market domination has created barriers within our very selves, making it harder to look at this most pressing of humanitarian crises.” 

But paradox is no obstacle to techno-optimist Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, The Collaboration Commons, and The Eclipse of Capitalism. While acknowledging that if we can’t “solve” the climate crisis, all bets are off, Rifkin suggests that we are evolving toward an “Internet of Things” in a quickly expanding global commons less and less subject to conventional market forces. He argues that the same aggregating and distributing power of the web that has upended communications and culture industries is about to “hop the invisible wall between bits and atoms.” He speculates that in such a world, capitalism will operate only as a “powerful niche player” in an economy of nearly free goods and services based more on shareable or exchange value.

What’s driving such deep change? Well, let’s see what’s for dinner...ah, structural impasse: that is, massive political, social, economic, cultural stress, driven by non-negotiable ecological imperatives. That’ll do it! And facilitating the change is a “neural” technology (the Internet) and emerging capabilities like 3-D printing.

Let’s stand above all of this and make a mental picture. Racing neck-and-neck toward the not-so-far-away horizon of current history are two mutually exclusive futures: one (climate catastrophe) the unintended consequence of our glorious energy and consumption adventure; the other a collaborative, more ecologically-based form of social innovation and utility that will allow us to survive on this planet. 

But social critic and professional realist James Kunstler rejects the gosh ’n’ golly tomorrowland of Rifkin and assumes not climate doom specifically, but that if there’s a low road anywhere in sight, humanity will take it. He reminds us:

“Fans assume that some mysterious ‘they’ will come up with innovative new technologies to obviate the need for fossil fuels. This notion is childish, idiotic, and wrong. Energy and technology are not substitutable with each other. If you run out of the former, you can’t replace it with the latter. The Jeremy Rifkins among us propound magical something-for-nothing workarounds for our predicament, but they are just blowing smoke. In fact, we’re faced with an unprecedented contraction of wealth, and a shocking loss of ability to produce new wealth. That’s the real ‘game-changer,’ not the delusions about plentiful shale oil or the robotic ‘industrial renaissance’ and all the related fantasies circulating among leadership.” 

Those of you who can’t shake a growing sense of dread may instinctively side with Kunstler (“the whole world will soon go medieval,” he believes). Many in my circle see only the slimmest hope of avoiding an ecological (and economic) near-future somewhere between dull and bad, and share a belief with Charles Bowden, who writes in Desierto: Memories of the Future, “All space is now temporary as the vise grip of our appetites tightens against it.”

So, there’s some (bulk) food for thought as you sit and calculate or consider your net worth, or “net good luck,” as a friend of mine calls it.

Still, urgency authors desperate hope and hard work. Kunstler, after all, gives short shrift to the potentials of and links between energy innovation and technology replacement. Rifkin’s evolutionary vision of the future surely will have its own shocks and unintended consequences; but, still, it may prevail in this eleventh hour we’ve made for ourselves. 

Besides, I don’t look good in medieval.

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.