This article is part of a series of adapted excerpts from “Bitcoin Is Venice” by Allen Farrington and Sacha Meyers, which is available for purchase on Bitcoin Magazine’s store now.
“The wealth that ultimately sustains any nation or community is derived from green plants growing on regenerating soil, a fact that even the most sophisticated conventional financial planning methods do not take into account.”
–Allan Savory, “Holistic Management”
We do not throw around the word “civilization” lightly. This profound ignorance of what agriculture is and is for touches on a seminal feature of its link to civilization. Much as we cannot have liquid derivatives markets without the foundation of real productive capital, we cannot have culture without agriculture. Arguably we can’t even have productive capital, hence liquid derivatives markets depend on the soil also. Savory laments this loss of foundational knowledge in hyper specialized, degenerate fiat modernity.
The root of the essentially communitarian tradeoffs of all capital, be it liquid derivatives markets, culture, or whatever, is in the tradeoffs inherent in adopting agriculture in the first place. David Montgomery captures this well in “Dirt: The Erosion Of Civilizations”:
“For over 99 percent of the last two million years, our ancestors lived off the land in small, mobile groups. While certain foods were likely to be in short supply at times, it appears that some food was available virtually all the time. Typically, hunting and gathering societies considered food to belong to all, readily shared what they had, and did not store or hoard — egalitarian behavior indicating that shortages were rare. If more food was needed, more was found. There was plenty of time to look. Anthropologists generally contend that most hunting and gathering societies had relatively large amounts of leisure time, a problem few of us are plagued with today.
“Farming’s limitation to floodplains established an annual rhythm, to early agricultural civilization. A poor harvest meant death for many and hunger for most. Though most of us in developed countries are no longer as directly dependent on good weather, we are still vulnerable to the slowly accumulating effects of soil degradation that set the stage for the decline of once-great societies as populations grew to exceed the productive capacity of floodplains and agriculture spread to the surrounding slopes, initiating cycles of soil mining that undermined civilization after civilization.”
The overbearing interference of fiat money has drowned out the local signal of received wisdom with malign incentives driving degenerate modern culture toward the delusion that it can have the benefits of both the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and agricultural civilization, and the costs of neither. Which is to say: we want the product of a fully-built civilization but not the work of building and maintaining it in the first place. We want to be able to live moment to moment, carefree, conflict free, tradeoff free, like nomadic hunter-gatherers for whom “time” means next to nothing. We don’t want to have to think long term to make interpersonal compromises or personal sacrifices. But, of course, we do want medicine, plumbing, literature and leisure. We want air conditioning and TikTok and soy chai lattes. We just want to consume these things without having first produced them.[i]
But we cannot. We have to make a choice. If we continue to strip mine every source of capital from which every consumable good emerges — tangible, cultural, spiritual, whatever — this choice will be made for us. Civilization will collapse. We will be the farmer who ate all the seed rather than planting even a little; the agricultural society who maximized flow instead of stock and stumbled into desertification when the stocks ran dry.
It is a peculiarly modern fantasy that civilization makes life easier; that it frees us from the shackles of a state of natural oppression and allows us all to find and to be our true selves. This is juvenile quackery. Civilization certainly makes life better, but earned at the cost of hard work. Civilization is proof of work. Civilization is the choice, as a community of individuals opting into voluntary cooperation to defer gratification: to invest rather than to consume. Individuals are perfectly free to opt out of these hard choices by returning to a pre-civilizational state, but it would be preferable to all if, in doing so, they had the decency to in fact remove themselves from civilization rather than skimming its consumable surplus while contributing nothing to its maintenance. There is nothing easier than gaily wandering in the wild and wondering whether one’s imminent death will come at the hands of illness, starvation, predation or some even funnier, more easily-preventable affliction.
We need to start thinking long term. Bitcoin fixes this. Bitcoin will make us think long-term, whether we want to or not. Those who selfishly refuse to will go bankrupt only locally. They will be systemically unimportant. Their childishness will be met only with finally being treated like children: We don’t hit each other, do we? That’s right, we don’t! Now use your words like a big boy. Those who ignore this sage advice will strip mine away only their own capital. They will get sick, starve or be eaten by a bear of entirely their own character-flawed making. The prudent, the responsible and the mature will thrive.
Besides the likely benefits to preservation and stewardship of environmental capital that will clearly be directly attributable to Bitcoin, there is a more broadly-obvious source of optimism. By far the greatest source of environmental destruction in the at-all-recent past has been big government, big business, and, worst of all, the two acting in tandem.
Although this is a slightly facetious framing, we like that it elides association with any contemporary political position or controversy. We furiously resist being painted with the asinine branding of either “left” or “right,” and have avoided any such branding that seems natural or accurate by going out of our way to insult the shibboleths of both. For instance, there is a previous endnote in this series in which we praised the committed liberal Matt McManus. Even if he would, we won’t say “leftist” as we don’t feel this does his thought and work justice, but we will make the following observation of the gravity of Bitcoin’s likely impact for respectable thinkers who would self-identify as either of the left or of the right or, perhaps more charitably, as liberals or as conservatives. Liberals will likely struggle with the unprecedented extent to which Bitcoin undermines state authority, and conservatives will likely struggle with the equally unprecedented extent to which Bitcoin drives rapid change in social relations.
We say neither from a position of political preference. Rather, we are mindful of David Hume’s is/ought: We are not saying this is a good or a just thing, necessarily, we are just saying it is going to happen, and all our notions of the good and the just, regardless of their potentially political motivations, will just have to deal with this. Reactionary objections will, as always, make a mockery of the left/right borderline nonsense split, very much in the spirit analyzed by Virginia Postrel’s wonderful, “The Future And Its Enemies.” We might easily and naturally adopt Postrel’s rhetoric to say, Bitcoin is the future, and it will make enemies of all political stripes.
The thesis underlying the facetiously-presented claim just above is more or less that the fiat monetary system encourages artificial bigness of all kinds — all manner of toxic bloat that would not be sustainable if not also protected from legitimate feedback or internalization of true costs.
“Big government” is a slur, admittedly. We mean something a little more specific than how such a slur might be read, and will only make the point here in reference to environmental issues before tackling it in much more detail in later excerpts. We mean government that is so big as to escape responsibility and accountability. If a government is responsible for everything, then it is responsible for nothing, and if everybody is accountable only to the government, then the government is accountable to nobody. As Elinor Ostrom, James C. Scott, Jane Jacobs and Friedrich Hayek would forcefully argue, this is a recipe for widespread yet heterogeneous local disaster. Ironically, it is specifically a recipe for no responsibility and no accountability — in every area touched, but most certainly including natural resources.
The environmental record of the Soviet Union, for example, is nothing short of catastrophic. Readers may be unaware that the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world, literally disappeared under the USSR’s incompetent industrial policy. Once providing 20% of the USSR’s fish stock and employing 40,000 people in fishing alone, never mind other supporting and supported industries, the total lack of accountability and responsibility inherent in such a totalitarian model led to thinking it was a good idea to divert most of the rivers feeding the lake to irrigation projects which, unsurprisingly, also failed.
But we need not resort to the specter of communism as we risk misleading the reader into thinking the problem with bigness lies with incompetently managed large-scale projects, and totalitarianism, no less. This can be true, but far more insidious is the prevention of small-scale projects that would otherwise have been perfectly competent. An EU directive mandating abattoirs could not operate without a qualified vet — without which British abattoirs had been quite alright for literally thousands of years — led to the closure of most small abattoirs which could not afford such a superfluity. This then directly exacerbated — and could reasonably be said to have caused — the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 given most cattle then had to travel hundreds of miles across the country to the closest brilliantly-regulated abattoir.
Rather than a local problem, dealt with by local people with local knowledge, the outbreak became a national disaster. There are, clearly, uncountably many such examples to choose from but we will cease at this amusing juxtaposition, lest the entire series become about regulatory incompetence, rather than Bitcoin, which will fix it.
“Big business,” too, is something of a slur. It might seem to run contrary to a reading of our tone of “market absolutism.” But this is a grave philosophical error, and a remarkably modern and lazy one at that.[ii] Although still tragically impoverished, it might nonetheless be reasonable to characterize the authors as “freedom absolutists,” “responsibility absolutists,” or ideally both given each can only be coherently understood in light of the other. But it is a peculiarly modern cluelessness to equate these positions with “market absolutism.” Roger Scruton put it wonderfully in “Green Philosophy: How To Think Seriously About The Planet”:
“It is not as though the complaints from the left against the petroleum companies, the agribusinesses, the producers of GM crops, the developers, the supermarkets and the airlines were all based on fabrications, or as if these businesses can be run just as they are without any lasting environmental damage. In fact, the greatest weakness of the position that John Gray describes as “neo-liberalism” — the ideological summoning of the market, as the sole remedy to all social and economic problems — is the refusal to make the distinction, apparent to all reasonable people, between big business and little business. When businesses are big enough they can cushion themselves against the negative side effects of their activity, and proceed as if all objections could be overcome by a consultant in ‘Corporate Social Responsibility,’ without any change in the way things are done.”
It is perhaps not so much “bigness” that is in itself a problem, but the kind of bigness to which Scruton alludes that only can only come into existence and be sustained in the first place by a government equally big, equally unsustainable and equally as disinterested in allowing decentralized feedback mechanisms to take their toll.
Government that big — and, in particular, that indiscriminately wasteful and destructive on account of its bigness — will not survive a Bitcoin standard. Bitcoin is the negative feedback that forces it to reckon with its own unsustainability. As Ostrom, Scott and Scruton would have recommended all along, government and business alike will be forced to become far more local, contextual, knowledgeable and competent.
[i] Jared Diamond makes a provocative devil’s advocate case against agriculture and for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in his essay, “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race.” The thesis may seem ridiculous on its face, but Diamond is meticulous and compassionate, not to mention an excellent writer. We obviously disagree, but we encourage the curious reader to take the piece completely seriously and to make up their own mind.
[ii] We may as well call it a degenerate fiat error. It’s not like we aren’t in deep enough at this point!
This is a guest post by Allen Farrington and Sacha Meyers. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.