Section Three: COMMODITY ECOLOGY: Institutionalizing Watershed Specific User-Producer Relationships
"Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not." ~George Benard Shaw
This is a contination of Section Two's Commodity Ecology description.
Institutionalizing Watershed Specific User-Producer Relationships
How do we get watershed-optimal technologies and material choice uses institutionalized?
Winner of the Dexter Prize for the best book in the history of technology, Thomas J. Misa in his book A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925, has a theme (and demonstrates it well) that innovation comes from producer-consumer relationships and close regular contacts, and that unoptimal frameworks of technology as well as materials are created once these two groups stop interacting in the development of materials for each other, and instead come to be socially isolated from input to each other, instead of crafting “forward” producer-consumer alliances for the development of materials and what is desired. In addition to this material change, there is a parallel issue of how technical change is involved in material choice change.
“The key point is the interactions of consumers and producers. Over the course of this study, I argue that the relationships between producers and consumers are the single most important determinant of the dynamics of technology and social change. Borrowed from studies in the economics of technical change, my conception of user-producer interactions encompasses how users and producers are internally organized, how and why they develop modes for communicating with each other, and how and whether strategic decision about innovation are made. The concept also includes straightforward economic considerations, such as price signals and demand structures. Such a concept is preferable to the notion of ‘market,’ which narrowly focuses on economic transactions and wrongly assumes atomistic actors. In this regard neoclassical economics is of no help in analyzing technical change, which violates the static world presumed by economic theory." [p. xix]
“An appreciation of user-producer interactions expands the domain of effective decisionmakers beyond the handful of individuals in the boardrooms of the largest steel companies. There is no reason to think that groups isolated from their economic and social context necessarily make good decisions about technologies [or material choices that are connected innately with these]. In fact, some of the far-reaching decisions evident in this study resulted from diversity in decision making. Public policies in the form of city building codes…were a determining factor in the first generation of steel-framed office buildings. The effect of building codes did not diminish over time. The federal government, quite apart from the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, was overtly involved with decision making [i.e., the direct meeting basis of producer-consumers before production] on rails and armor, and indirectly with decisions concerning high-speed steel.
“We now possess a series of powerful insights into the dynamics of technology and social change. Together, these insights offer the realistic promise of being better able, if we choose [particularly toward sustainability], to modulate the complex process of technical change. We can now locate the range of sites for technical decision making, including private companies [without limited to them as the only site], trade organizations, engineering societies, and governmental agencies [additionally, consumer pre-production activism, and citizen political activism]. We can suggest a typology of user-producer interactions, including centralized, multicentered, decentralized, and direct-consumer interactions, that will enable certain kinds of actions while constraining others. We can even suggest a range of activities that are likely to effect technical change, including standards setting, building and zoning codes, and governmental procurement. Furthermore, we can also suggest a range of strategies which citizens supposedly on the “outside” may be able to influence decisions supposedly made on the “inside” about technical change, including credibility pressure, forced technology choice, and regulatory issues.
“Finally, given the centrality of vigorous user-producer interactions in technical innovation, public policies concerning innovation and competitiveness should focus on this crucial dimension. A century after the Sherman Antitrust Act, it is clear that neither antitrust or regulation, the twin poles of industrial policy in the United States, is a sufficient governmental instrument to ensure technological innovation and competitiveness. From the perspective of this study, a sensible a feasible public policy would be to promote, monitor, and ensure the vigorous user-producer interactions that are essential for technical change linked to changing user requirements. In retrospect, what was wrong with U.S. Steel was not its size or even its market power but its policy of isolating itself from the new demands from users that might have spurred technical change. The resulting technological torpidity [and ongoing environmental degradation] that doomed the industry was not primarily a matter of industrial concentration, outrageous behavior on the part of white- and blue-collar employees, or even dysfunctional relations among management, labor, and government. What went wrong was the industry’s relations with its consumers.” [p. 277-8]
“One tragic consequence was the flagrant disregard of users’ needs and the stagnation in technical capabilities that led directly to industrial decline.” [p. 282]
So, what if the project is technology and material change toward sustainability?
In Misa’s terms, that would indicate, in a bioregional state model of technological development and material choice issues, a framework that would institute user/consumer-producer relationships that are multicentered, decentralized, and direct-consumer interaction based.
Moreover, applying the watershed metric layer, and applying this to all commodity choices at once, this means that such user-producer relationships will be occurring across all 54 optimally and simultaneously informing each other, instead of only occurring in isolated parallel user-producer relationships in one area (like building materials above, steel is the example). It will be occurring in a cross-referenced framework, where, similar to ecological modernization, the outputs or “temporary wastes” of one material choice use can be fitted easily into another material choice use.
This is similar to the “Gaviotas”-sense of local interactivity. Gaviotas is a nice example of how user-producer relationships for the goals of sustainability were required as well. They changed and made both technology and material choice issues a form of democratic discussion in their community on how to optimize the material relationships synergistically. In Gaviotas, it was only when the gruff “technological producer” preoccupied 'professional worker' adults were forced to share the same dinner and lunch tables and talk with the “user children” of their technological handiwork, did a large amount of technological innovation start to accrue. One example was the combining of the see-saw for kids with the water pump, effectively harnessing child play for water pumping, and making it fun as well instead of a drugery, as well as putting children within the contributing world of the community instead of being external to its working life. The school framework itself was bundled into creating user-producer relationships, by having class be visiting various workshops in the actual technologcial world. In the process of questions and answers betwen the tech-adults and the roving class of children, many other user-producer links were discovered and implemented, with the children's school thus benefiting both the adults as well as the children. These are only two of several examples. There are many more. Thus, in Gaviotas, the user-producer relationships were additionally child-adult relationships that came full circle as well. Such communication occurs only if all the different user-producer frameworks are regularly made aware of each other through some regular basis.
It would be fine to do this at a dinner table. However, to systematize what is going on here, as well as to note how Gaviotas failed when it attempted to "scale out" its work, the suggestion here is to have specific watershed institutionalizations instead of force one group to do all the work and outsource it to them (which was the part that Gaviotas took upon themselves, and basically failed in doing). If instead, there are watershed based institutionalizations of these user-producer awarenesses and how they are always geograpphically specific in their solutions, then we can have all 54 material choices debated simultaneously though specific to a single watershed's optimalization in the name of its people living there, instead of in the name of an external technological importer.
A watershed based institution is required, in Misa’s terms, to enhance and cultivate geographically optimal and specific frameworks of technological innovation and materials choice. This is based innately upon the geographic specific dynamics upon how various other material choices, inputs, and outputs are arranged uniquely in each watershed--and require different solutions for different watersheds.
Quoting above, sustainability itself thus is a “a sensible, feasible public policy…to promote, monitor, and ensure the vigorous user-producer interactions that are essential for technical change linked to changing user requirements” toward a goal of economic durability, ecological security, and health optimalization for each watershed. Each of these three goal factors--economic durability, ecological security, and health optimalization--should be the criteria for watershed based user/consumers in their relations with producers in their area.
How can this be done? If it's democratization and “bio-nationalization” of materials choice processes and procedures of decision making (instead of materials themselves) we are talking about in sustainability, this means that consumers are the ultimate power of authority in materials choice relationships and should have some type of institution in which they can do one of two activities: arrange or call attention to user-producer relationships in material choices that they want in their area, as well as complain about the existing separation (a la the “U.S. Steel syndrome” above) of producers who ignore the three criteria for sustainability mentioned above which are effected by user-producer relationships.
These issues of materials choice decisionmaking procedures are to be democratically nationalized (and watershed-based) issues, instead of exclusively a private issue taken typically with regard or even against the consumer interest (as in the current frameworks of “consumption without representation” in GMO foods for example). Instead, feedback from the public in consumer/user-producer relationships on what materials they want to consume in their watersheds, and which ones should be phased out, how to interlink each of them, and what technology is required to perform this, is involved here.
Some suggestions for institutionalizing this to optimize for each watershed are as follows:
1. The 54 different producers in each watershed of each material choice should get together, with consumers in an open meeting, the district of which shall be the local watershed and the polity being the total people who live within it.
2. If there are less than the 54, the ‘holes’ should be identified as well for what could be manufactured in the watershed within sustainable goals to fill these local sourcing issues. It is quite astounding how the Gaviotas team, working from virtual desert and mud conditions, learned how to discover and fulfill a different material choice rubric for a completely different local geography. Sustainability is a lot like discovering one’s local geography, and adapting to it in terms of material choices.
3. At the meeting, for the producers interest, they can talk among themselves about what wastes they are generating, and gain ideas for how to import wastes of one material use into the inputs of another material use in the same watershed. They can talk about their mutual wastes--to buy and sell or mix--and get ideas for what to do with them for profit or reuse flows. Consider it a “waste based stock market” for each of the 54 material uses in a watershed. In addition to this:
4. At the meeting, for the consumer/user’s interest, they can talk directly to the producers on what they would like to purchase, and what is considered destructive of sustainability in their particular watershed, what wastes are completely unacceptable and why and how this can be rectified by materials change, leaving it up to the producers how to organize the technological change; otherwise, the consumers should find some producer to arrange it instead. Under “bio-nationalization” of the materials choice, each watershed shall have the democratic jurisdiction over its own local economic development, as mentioned elsewhere in this series:
Bioregional democracy (or the Bioregional State) is a set of electoral reforms (and commodity reforms) designed to force the political process in a democracy to better represent concerns about the economy, the body, and environmental concerns (e.g., water quality), toward developmental paths that are locally prioritized and tailored to different areas for their own specific interests of sustainability and durability. This denotes democratic control of a natural commons and local jurisdictional dominance in any economic developmental path decisions--while not removing more generalized civil rights protections of a larger national state.
5. The watershed user-producer institution shall determine how often it meets. It is suggested that this occur every six months or so, or at least annually.
6. Consumers can force a watershed group user-producer meeting with producer representatives in attendance, under authority of the bionationalization powers of local economic development over material choice, in the bioregional state.
7. It is suggested that each of the 54 producers form executive committees for investigation on each material if a desire for change is expressed in the consumer base.
8. Each group of 54 user-producer institutions solutions will be specific to the watershed's desires. However, across all watersheds, people in general can get ideas for how the abstract relationships between the 54 could work in their watershed, based on how it was done elsewhere.
9. A website could be established with 54 portals, to post threads on each of the 54 material choice topics, with cross links. Each of the 54 categories of material use could comprise one topic or thread. In such an environment, for each watershed, local residents of the watershed could have access in real time to voting or commenting on different proposals (which is very Ray Pingree-esque), or post their own consumer-producer ideas (whether “direct” or “indirect” proposals, respectively) for how to integrate different material choices or how to back-engineer what to do with a particular material item that is a waste in their area looking for a novel use, to get rid of it, toward moving toward something else that is more circuitous and recyclable in its material use in the watershed.
10. A “54 fair” should be held each year, to celebrate the ideas and show off and sell the products of the past year, as well as a party to buy and sell locally in the watershed or the larger bioregion in general.
For example in one of these meetings, I might say “look, I want a water fuel based hydrogen-on-demand engine, and I want to buy one now.    I want to completely get out of oil use for fuel. Someone should help me find out how to build one. Or, build them and we will buy them. Or sell a ready assembly kit.” Others might say “Look, I want a completely organic school lunch program, find a way to do that for my children at their local school and we will help you by purchasing it and seeing it work.” Others might have a general question or brainstorming idea to propose, for instance, when they have the material they want to use, though they want help from the 54 on what they could make from it. “Look, I want to find some way to utilize all these heaps of old tires at the city junkyard. What ideas do you have?” Thus, one can see, that “direct requests” for user-producer relationships as well as “inverse requests” (when you have the material and are unaware of what to use it for) for user-producer relationships can be accomplished. Other requests could be toward showing a desire for different health services/medical commodity choices, for instance.
These can be a venue for generating many novel cross-linked ideas for sustainability solutions, similar to the synergy that kept cropping up in the story of Gaviotas. When three or four materials choices are already integrated into each other in feedback loops, they found it far easier to consider how to scale these material relationships into several score of materials simultaneously, building from commonly acceptable sustainable relationships, and finding ways to insert other ones into the mix slowly like a jigsaw puzzle once you have several that are already fitted together. They found that accidentally, they were "building" a forest, and reforesting what was once a barren wasteland with a forest canopy.
In conclusion, this institutionalization of watershed specific user-producer relationships gets an ongoing, geographically specific input from different actors together.
It weaves a network of local integrity economically, ecologically, and healthfully in each watershed and larger bioregion instead of polluting it, destroying it, and harming its economic viability and the health of its population in the process.
It is simply insanity to intentionally or even passively continue to support frameworks of formal institutions, formal policy, technology, and materials choice that are innately self-destructive, economically destructive, ecologically destructive, and health impairing. Instead, due to a lack of user-producer relationships, a “U.S. Steel syndrome” of supply versus demand culture in technological and material choices has been created. Supply versus demand style politics only generates environmental degradation and hosts the three types of externalities mentioned above, as well as entraps consumers in a framework where their choice is maligned and restricted.
If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner. ~ Omar N. Bradley