The Lean Economy: A Vision of Civility for a World in Trouble

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The Lean Economy: A Vision of Civility for a World in Trouble

DAVID FLEMING, The Annual Feasta Lecture


The coming oil shock is not the only reason why the prospects for the global market economy and for civilisation as a whole look poor. A complex system, such as a car or a human body, tends at the end of its life to fail in many different ways at about the same time.

A second sign of systems failure is climate change.

Thirdly, there is the complex and still poorly-understood issue of how a mature market economy can, even under ideal conditions, sustain the perpetual economic growth which is an essential condition for its stability: along with Richard Douthwaite and others I argue that it simply cannot do so.

Fourthly, there is the increasingly intense phenomenon of disengagement ­ a failure of participation, consent, shared values, social cohesion ­ in short, a failure of social capital which ultimately matures into insurgency, both from dissidents on the outside of modern society and from within it. The system is failing in many other ways: soil fertility, water, hormone disruptors, the collapse of fisheries ­ but that is enough for now.

If we put all these together, then we find ourselves looking at the climax of the market economy, followed by its comprehensive failure, very high unemployment and an atrophy of government revenues, leading towards what could be called hyperunemployment - that is, unemployment so high that government cannot fund subsistence payments and pensions. Unemployment on this scale means no income. No income means no food. No food means the collapse of urban populations on the scale experienced by former civic societies ­ the Romans and some two dozen other accomplished civilisations ­ in the closing phase of their life-cycles. I hope I am wrong or, rather, that it doesn't come to this. But it does seem obvious to me that the opportunity is rapidly passing in which it will be possible to avoid the high levels of mortality that have been associated with the collapse of other civic societies.

......... After the failure of the market economy, households will lack jobs, they will lack state handouts; above all, they will lack primary goods - food, water, energy and materials. Those are the things that really matter; they provide the basis for coping with life - and they are the things that urban populations cannot easily provide for themselves. Primaries will fall within the range of assets open to households if and only if there is a revolution in their effectiveness as producers. Households will need to become as competent in the future as industry is now; they will need to use many of industry's technologies and practices. The name of this revolution is "the new domestication".

..... All civilisations crash. In the end, the political economy flips into a quite different, lightweight, decentralised order requiring a drastically reduced quantity of goods and services, minimal transport and much less specialisation. In response, people and localities start to provide most of what they need for themselves. This is the inevitable sequel to the closing stages of a civic society.

In the past, those closing stages have led to a collapse into dark ages, with the population, as the Venerable Bede put it, being "cut down, like ripe corn". I would argue that the sooner we start to build distributed, decentralised, broadly competent local economies, the more realistic they become: the less the pain; the less the grief; the greater the prospects of
evolution beyond the market economy - making something of what we have inherited, and building on it.

........ Rethinking land-use: The market economy's pattern of "capture and concentration" with large centres linked by routine transport is inappropriate for the stabilised Lean Economy of the future, which will require a more sophisticated, complex organisation.

......... Closed systems. It is here that the solution lies. And closed systems will take the form of local organisation, local economies. There will be no alternative. They will not be able to buy-in their needs, to import their way out of trouble. Local lean economies will not simply be a good idea; they will be the only option. And they will be organised on principles of lean thinking.

... A closed system means no material imports, no material waste, and dependence on solar energy. Well, you cannot get completely closed systems in human affairs, except on the scale of the planet as a whole, but, on a local scale, you can get very much closer than we are at present.

A closed system in the case of food requires fertility to be retained locally - that is, not only nitrogen, phosphates and potash - but the micronutrients too. If conserved as capital, composted and used again and again, fertility - including human waste - can be more than simply sustained; it can be built up towards the extraordinarily high local yields achieved by such virtuosos of food production as Alan Chadwick and John Jeavons.

........... But we have to start from where we are. We have to rebuild a culture, a multiple culture, making a celebratory virtue out of diversity. And we need to have an idea of the job that a strong culture has to do. You see, there is a great deal more to local economies than renewable energy and local currencies; material need is not, and never has been, a sufficient incentive for wholehearted cooperation in anything. What we are talking about here, what we are looking for, is a society which is capable of lasting for a very long time, picking up from the defunct market economy, containing and channelling ambitions, providing a social and cognitive setting for the greatest minds, being fun, tolerating dissidence, moving beyond sustainable development and environmental policy, and joining together to build a political economy for a new era. What local economies have to achieve in the future is survival, permanence and civility.

King of kings' Bible - Isaiah 2:4 And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.


David Fleming studied history at Oxford (1963), business management at Cranfield (1968) and economics at Birkbeck College, London, completing a PhD in 1988. After working in industry he became an independent consultant. He was elected to the Council of the Ecology (Green) Party in 1977 and served as economics spokesman and press secretary; the party office was his flat in Hampstead. He later worked on the Council of the Soil Association, which he chaired 1988-91. He now works full time as a writer and lecturer on the environmental and social issues which can be expected to have a major impact in the new century. He has recently completed two books: The Lean Economy: A Vision of Civility for a World in Trouble, and Lean Logic: A Dictionary for Our Time, which are due to be published shortly.