This Could be the Solution to Everything
An in-depth exploration of the political economy of decentralization.
By NuMundo co-founder David Casey
How can we nurture an ecosystem of true decentralization?
In order for a culture and political economy of decentralization to emerge, the right infrastructure must be implemented.
Ownership and organization of the means of production shape a society’s social and economic order. And so, centralized control of infrastructure leads to a centralized political economy. It follows that decentralization and community control of the means of production could enable humans, individually and collectively, to create a culture of freedom — both from the burden of debt and through self-actualization, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.(1)
Individuals who find empowerment through self-sufficiency and resource autonomy become truly sovereign beings. Freedom of consciousness and the achievement of human potential is a natural consequence of autonomy and liberation from scarcity.
The requisite knowledge to implement a decentralized political economy exists today; however, that knowledge is not distributed. Sharing knowledge — and rewarding its distribution — is a central need in the cash-poor and knowledge-rich twenty-first century.
The Dangers of Centralization
Centralized control of energy production has led to centuries of conflict in the Middle East, funding the rise of oppressive regimes across the region. Human rights and environmental abuses in the Amazon rainforest by Texaco have gone unchecked due to collusion with national governments.(2) And Royal Dutch Shell had a hand in the Nigerian government’s execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. (3) These are just a few examples of the dangers of centralized control of energy production.
In Japan, India, Pakistan, the USA and other nation-states, the presence of nuclear energy often coincides with the rise of the military-industrial complex and the justification of the surveillance state as guarding access to this powerful technology. Nuclear power has historically resulted in the externalization of costs from meltdowns, decommissions, and secure nuclear waste disposal onto taxpayers, who subsidize this energy source.
The water industry, which many consider the “petroleum” or key global resource of the twenty-first century, is under similar attack. Consider the case study of Bolivia. The government of Bolivia accepted a $2.5 billion contract to hand over a municipal water system to a multinational corporation, which then attempted to prohibit citizens from harvesting and collecting rainwater from the sky, leading to severe civil unrest.(4) Meanwhile, in Mexico, Coca-Cola has been shown to exploit the water resources of indigenous communities.(5)
With the centralization of food production, Monsanto-led industrial scale agriculture has led to a decline in genetic biodiversity and an existential threat to the global bee population.(6,7) Monocropping and the use of agricultural pesticides have been identified as key contributing factors. We find similar cases of government and industry exploitation of communities in mining, logging, and most other primary industries.
The global economy in aggregate is becoming centralized in an unprecedented manner, concentrating power and money in the hands of a few players.(8) The very systems that sustain us, including finance, food, water, and energy, have been consolidated into monopolies, oligopolies, and cartels.
In order to nurture an ecosystem based on true decentralization — to regenerate rather than extract pools of natural capital — we must design systems that incentivize circular flows of value in localized areas, while preventing leakage of value to centralized and extractive economic industries.
True decentralization is difficult to imagine without local control of the means of production. This translates into local ownership, direct access, and ultimately control of underlying infrastructure. In the 1960’s, a coal economist working for the British government named EF Schumacher developed the concept of appropriate technology.
Appropriate technology has minimal social and environmental negative effects, is relatively simple to understand and operate, and is cheap and easy to produce, ideally with locally-sourced materials. Appropriate technology has few dependencies on outside specialized knowledge and expensive imported materials. Therefore, it is resistant to centralization.
After spending years recommending an increase in coal production to meet the growing needs of the British economy, Schumacher projected an unsustainable trend of continuous increase of coal production necessary to meet growing demand. This would have massive social, environmental, and political consequences.
His prescription was to design human-centered technology to meet human needs while minimizing negative externalities. The majority of the technologies described below constitute appropriate technologies.
An essential accompaniment to appropriate technology is the application of permaculture design science. Permaculture design is the design of a culture that can sustain life (and in our case human life) indefinitely. It generally constitutes circular systems that recycle resources, optimizing for “resource productivity” and minimizing for waste. A related design field is biomimicry, which is design inspired by and imitating natural systems, which often are inherently zero-waste.
A reimagined water system would entail a drastic reduction in the distance water travels from the source, to the point of consumption, to the point of disposal. It would also mean a focus on multiple “post-consumer” uses for water, such as redirecting shower water for irrigation.
The first component of such a system is rainwater catchment and collection. Terraformation, and specifically swales on contour, can capture water and sink it into the ground using simple gravity. This maximizes the capture of rainfall over an area and reduces the need for irrigation, simultaneously replenishing the water table, wells, and springs.
The Warka Water Tower technology, for instance, empowers African villages to harvest moisture from the atmosphere in sub-Saharan dry desert climates, where previously the only solution was often expensive bottled water from Coca-Cola or other multinational corporations.
The next element is filtration. There are a number of low-cost solutions that provide filtration solutions at the household and municipal level. These include a number of natural filtration materials such as clay, stone, and activated carbon (charcoal), as well as UV sterilization systems. EcoFiltro is one social enterprise with an amazing track record of bringing clean water to remote villages in Guatemala and creating local “water grids.” Liquid Life uses blockchain technology and existing cellular networks combined with novel water filtration technology to create an innovative distribution system in rural Africa.
After primary uses for water such as drinking, cooking, and bathing, water can be “down-cycled” for secondary purposes such as irrigation. In the urban context, we can imagine apartment buildings channeling sink water and bathwater into urban garden systems.
The final essential component is storage. Whether it be in retention ponds, cement tanks and cisterns, or directly in the soil, water “banking” is an essential component of water self-sufficiency. This element is particularly important in areas of the world where there is a wet season with months of rain followed by a dry season where rainfall is sparse or non-existent. The Incas were masters of this art and had massive storage tanks for water.
The decentralization of the food supply in some ways marks a return to pre-industrial farming networks. A decentralized food system involves growing and sourcing locally, minimizing transport between production and consumption, and harvesting food waste to convert into compost and create the input for a new production cycle.
These methods are still active in many areas of the world today. One example is southern Mexico, where the autonomous Zapatista communities of Chiapas and Oaxaca organize based on ancestral indigenous organic food production methods.
Utilizing techniques such as permaculture design, agro-ecology, biodynamic farming, Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Farming Method, and selecting crops that are appropriately adapted to climate and season, we can design food systems to increase in yield and resilience with each year. Non-local, non-organic inputs can be greatly reduced utilizing these methods, decreasing economic as well as environmental costs.
Using local heirloom seeds and plant stock is a fundamental element in all of the above strategies. Not only are these seeds more resilient, but they also allow the farmer to legally harvest and replant their own seeds, taking back control of their seed supply. This autonomy is often impossible with commercial seed purchased from multinational seed corporations, where the farmer needs to purchase seeds each year.
Concerning transportation of food, the same principles apply as with water systems. Decreasing transport distances lowers both cost and carbon footprint — and increases freshness. It also decreases the need for sophisticated in-transport preservation and refrigeration systems that can involve harmful contaminants both for the natural environment and the human body.
The final component of a decentralized food supply is the closing of the resource cycle — capturing outputs and converting them to inputs. This applies to water, plants gone to seed, eroded topsoil, non-edible components of a plant (which can often be turned into secondary products), and all the way down to food waste and kitchen scraps at the consumer level.
A decentralized energy supply minimizes transmission time (and loss) between the source of production and the site of consumption. Distributed micro-grids powered by renewable energy are emerging around the world as a competitor to utility companies that rely on massive power plants and lengthy transmission distances.
Before the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, 30% of Japan’s supply was nuclear. Since Fukushima, the majority of plants remain closed and the government has been supporting a decentralized mix of new renewable energy sources. The Fukushima Renewable Energy Fund launched to help local communities create energy cooperatives and install solar panels and wind turbines.(9)
Power Ledger, Pylon, and Swytch are three blockchain projects to watch, building critical components of the decentralized energy infrastructure. Blockchain networks connecting energy producers and consumers offer an alternative to participation in centralized energy systems; they create the right conditions for novel business models and incentive structures to emerge.
On the consumer side, there’s a beautiful case of an emerging network of electric car owners who are opening their home charging stations (often powered by rooftop solar panels, and even rooftops made of solar panel tiles) to each other. Plugshare and ChargeHub are examples of the real sharing economy. As these networks grow, they are increasing the range an electric car owner can travel, while nearly eliminating fueling costs. We can envision this system eventually eclipsing the existing network of petrol stations and the vertically integrated international supply chain behind them.
Throughout the centuries, cities have been built by sourcing local natural materials and employing climate-adapted building techniques optimized for comfortable living without external inputs.
In the Southwestern desert of the United States, Navajo and Hopi structures are designed to keep the inside cool during the day, while capturing, storing, and radiating heat at night to keep the dwellers warm. Passive climate control techniques like these require knowledge of local materials as well as careful design.
Designed with care and knowledge, buildings can minimize or entirely eliminate the need for heating, collect and store rainwater, and repurpose water from household uses for secondary agricultural uses. Amory Lovins, author of Natural Capitalism, has pioneered some of these methods. He founded a school, The Rocky Mountain Institute, where students can learn how to implement these techniques. CASSA in Guatemala is another social enterprise leading the way in designing affordable housing that eliminates or reduces utility bills for life. The earthships of Taos, New Mexico are a testament to what can be done with local materials and masterful design.
In addition to local materials, we have access to a growing stream of industrial byproducts that can be repurposed for housing material. Hempcrete is a strong lightweight material consisting of compressed hemp fibers, and is an increasingly available and affordable byproduct of the cannabis industry.
Beyond the design of an individual house, we can also consider the art of designing living spaces for small communities. Arcosanti is a unique experiment in optimizing the use of space for communal purposes, and is a prototype for what urban spaces could look like in the future.
The 3D-printing revolution is giving consumers the ability to design and produce their own dwellings in a customizable manner with fewer and fewer barriers — and then share their designs with the global community. We can anticipate further innovation and diversification as the 21st century progresses.
The means of production and the knowledge to operate those means of production are becoming more available to consumers by the day. Rapidly declining costs of 3D printers, combined with the rise of membership-based maker spaces and fabrication labs (“fab labs”) are leading to the democratization of production and open source hardware.
The Open Source Ecology is a noble and ambitious attempt to prototype a set of machinery that could serve as the basis to create an entire civilization. Appropredia is a Wiki for appropriate technology models. Hackerspaces Wiki is a useful resource for finding hackerspaces and communities around the world.
Economist Herman Daly wrote in Steady State Economics that today’s economy maximizes throughput of materials, and optimizes for programmed self destruction and planned obsolescence. Tomorrow’s economy must maximize resource productivity (the amount of productivity that can be derived from a resource), durability, potential to recycle or down-cycle materials after primary use, and slowing throughput of materials through the economy.
Daly posits that we must redefine “economic growth” to signify growth in resource productivity and in the knowledge economy, and that we cannot indefinitely increase the amount of materials our economy consumes.(10) Through the employment of biomimicry (mimicking natural processes) and industrial ecology (designing production processes to mimic an ecosystem of synergistic outputs and inputs), we can redesign our production systems.
Decentralization in Practice
An interesting living case study of a decentralized political economy is the network of autonomous indigenous communities across southern Mexico, concentrated in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. A number of these communities identify with the Zapatista movement, a modern post-Marxist political movement espousing bottom-up governance, direct democracy on the community level, and exit from centralized political and economic systems. Unsurprisingly, this movement has seen violent repression by its host nation-state.
The indigenous zones of Chiapas and Oaxaca have historically been a difficult area for the Mexican nation-state to govern, as the state’s authority has never been fully recognized by the patchwork of indigenous tribes that populate the mountainous region. The population of these regions already contains a high degree of resource self-sufficiency and elaborate systems for managing local natural resources that date back thousands of years.
The Zapatista movement is somewhat unique in that it fuses modern political theory with ancestral customs that pre-date the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Intact village-scale governance systems are structured in such a way that “taxes” are non-monetary obligations of an individual village member’s time. Public services such as municipal administration, security, and waste collection are covered in this way, on a rotational basis. Barter systems are abundant; for example, one can pay school tuition with maize and other agricultural crops.
In the bottom-up governance structure of Zapatista communities, representatives are elected by each community. These representatives congregate with each other to develop proposals which are then brought back to the communities. Each community can vote whether to accept or reject a certain proposal, retaining full autonomy at the community level. This system bears similarities to early 18th-century iterations of the United States of America, before power became concentrated in the executive branch.
Switzerland also offers a number of informative case studies for a decentralized political economy. Some towns have managed a continuously unbroken commons governance protocol to manage communal farmland and forest across the centuries.(11)
Many to Many
20th vs. 21st Century Technological Trends
In Zero Marginal Cost Society, author Jeremy Rifkin compares 20th and 21st century technological trends. The conclusion is an optimistic prediction of the emergence of a decentralized society.
First, let’s look at the communication, energy and transportation matrix that enables the flow of information, electricity, raw and manufactured goods, and of course humans. The 20th century was characterized by “One to Many” production and distribution systems, and favored business models that sought vertical integration and centralization. Telecommunications was dominated by television and radio, both “one to many” broadcasting technologies that favor large corporations and authoritarian political regimes. The energy industry saw the meteoric rise of fossil fuel production and nuclear power, accompanied by large centralized production facilities and the surveillance state necessarily guarding nuclear technology. Transportation was dominated by the internal combustion engine, road, and rail.
The 21st century is characterized by the rise of “many to many” technologies, peer-to-peer networks, and the sharing economy. Communication in the 21st century happens on the internet and cellular networks. We now have instant access to the collective legacy of human knowledge right in our pocket. The energy industry is witnessing the rise of distributed renewable energy networks powered by the internet of things, often financially incentivized through sharing economy systems and blockchain networks. Logistics and transportation is marked by a rise in automation, and coordination through the internet of things. Distributed production is now possible thanks to 3D-printing, fabrication labs, and other increasingly inexpensive, replicable technologies that empower the “prosumer” (producer-consumer).
The financial system has not gone unaffected either. We are witnessing a transition from national banks and fiat currencies, private equity and investment banking toward blockchain technology and decentralized cryptocurrencies running on public blockchains, and various forms of crowdfunding including equity crowdfunding, and initial coin (ICO) and security token (STO) offerings. The transition is in its nascent stages and will take one or more decades to tip the scales; however, many nation-states are already attempting to adopt or co-opt these trends as evidenced by the rise of state-backed cryptocurrencies (see Venezuela’s Petro, Russia’s plans for an oil-backed state cryptocurrency, China’s “ChinaCoin” currently being tested in Shenzhen). Likewise, Bitcoin is rising in popularity as a currency and store of value in nation-states experiencing hyper-inflation like Venezuela.
Cryptocurrency and blockchain have unlocked new tools that networked groups can use to rewrite the operating systems of economic and governance structures from the ground up, maximizing participation and innovation.
Blockchain technology is fundamentally a driver of decentralization, unlike prominent twentieth century “one to many” technologies like radio, television, and print newspaper. Blockchain is a “many-to-many,” censorship-resistant communication technology, facilitating the emergence of non-hierarchical networked economic and political structures.
One beautiful example that combines a number of these principles is the Steem Blockchain, an application-specific blockchain accompanied by the Steem cryptocurrency and the Steemit social media application. The Steemit community has succeeded in bootstrapping an open-source ecosystem that delivers censorship-resistant social media, while incentivizing authors and content creators to monetize attention and information by awarding quality content producers with cryptocurrency through a decentralized meritocratic voting system. A strong community and advanced digital governance system steers the evolution of the ecosystem. A number of newer open-source applications have been built on top of the Steem Blockchain to enhance the ecosystem and increase the utility of Steem, including dtube, a censorship-resistant YouTube clone that leverages the InterPlanetary File System to store video content.
The Politics of Spaces
Spaces and the experience of those spaces can be designed to optimize specific changes in consciousness. Many bodies of knowledge have been developed throughout history, including the art of feng shui, the varied applications of sacred geometry to architecture, and the careful attention to detail in ceremonial and spiritual spaces of worship across cultures, geographies, and centuries.
In our case, the target outcome is to the direct the conscious awareness toward the realization that a different world is possible today, founded upon a decentralized political economy.
The laws of attraction (“if you build it, they will come”) can be leveraged to crowdsource innovation in prototyping physical spaces embodying a decentralized political economy.
When a theory is put into practice and becomes a lived experience, it can become instilled in an individual or group of individuals as a strong belief, and can eventually become the guiding story for a new culture.
Author Charles Eisenstein speaks eloquently to the need for a new story — a new framework for understanding the world that allows us to dream a different future into being. Similarly, author John Perkins, in his seminal work Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, alludes to this necessity when he receives a message from an Ecuadorian shaman deep in the Amazon rainforest:
“The world is as you dream it,” he said at last. “Your people dreamed of huge factories, tall buildings, as many cars as there are raindrops in this river. Now you begin to see that your dream is a nightmare.” He bent to pick up a stone. “The problem is your country is like this pebble.” He threw it far out into the river. “Everything you do ripples across the Mother.”
— Numi, Shuar Shaman (12)
The very act of existing within a space largely outside the influence of centralized systems imbues a sense of psychological empowerment amongst the inhabitants. The freedom from outside influence allows us to experience ourselves as we truly are, and opens space for the pursuit of our human potential.
I believe that each human being has a purpose on this earth. The greatest pursuit is to discover our purpose, and then take the steps to realize and strive for that purpose. Many human beings never get this opportunity due to the circumstances and conditions that they are born into. When one is beholden to outside elements, it can take one or more generations to cast off these burdens and open the possibility to explore the trajectory of potential.
Beyond the individual psyche, there are larger-scale political effects of the empowerment that results from local control of resources and the means of production. When citizens are no longer dependent on corporations, authoritarian governments, and public utility companies to meet their basic needs, they are better able to act autonomously and stand up for their basic rights. They also have more control over the inflow and outflow of capital and resources, and are able to prevent extractive practices that suck rural areas dry (sometimes, quite literally).
Individuals and communities can find empowerment through self-sufficiency, resource autonomy, and networks of local interdependence in order to become truly sovereign.
This is the vision NuMundo holds for the planet.
Connecting the Nu World
NuMundo is a global experiment in prototyping the future of living outside centralized systems. It is a database of possibilities for what human coexistence can look like. It is a living, breathing network of communities that exchange a flow of humans and information, sharing knowledge and best practices.
Individuals are able to travel throughout the network and witness experiments in coexistence in more than 100 countries. NuMundo facilitates the “decentralized lifestyle” on two levels: 1) enabling the nomadic live anywhere lifestyle, and 2) empowering individuals to live outside of centralized systems, learn this knowledge, and spread it. With the recent integration of a blockchain-based payment technology developed by Coinpayments, individuals can explore the “nu world” using the new financial system of decentralized cryptocurrencies.
In the future, NuMundo will host its own network token to facilitate the flow and sharing of value throughout the network, and link to a governance system that will empower the network’s actors to have a voice in its development.
The impact centers featured on the NuMundo network are experimental living centers for the healthy, fulfilling, sustainable lifestyles of tomorrow — “peak living.” Impact centers are ecovillages, intentional communities, organic farms and sustainability education centers, retreat centers and indigenous communities.
These centers are the nodes of the network, where it comes to life. Impact centers are prototyping a decentralized political economy on a micro-scale:
- Tamera is one such prototype. Tamera is a continuous experiment pushing the conceptual boundaries of human coexistence on multiple fronts. Its water management techniques have created a veritable desert oasis that has been recognized by the United Nations as a model worth replicating. Its experiments in education, child-raising, family structures, marriage, economy, relationship to animals and the natural world are unique and unparalleled. Tamera’s vision is to spawn hundreds of related experimental communities around the world, and indeed it has already inspired the genesis of a few.
- Auroville is another long-standing experiment, and possibly the largest intentional community in existence today. Auroville is an international community in India with a permanent resident population above 2,000 that attracts thousands of visitors annually.
I believe that we as a species have all the tools available today to implement a decentralized political economy on a global scale. The solutions will emerge not from the status, but from a decentralized network of innovators, experiments, “start-up societies,” and spaces existing at the edges of the current paradigm.
Want to be part of it?
Apply to become an ambassador — http://ambassadors.numundo.org
Travel to an impact center — www.numundo.org/centers
Take our course on conscious travel — www.numundo.org/transformational-travel-bootcamp
- Charles Eisenstein, Climate: a New Story, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible
- Daniel Suarez, Freedom
- Herman Daly, Steady State Economics
- EF Schumacher, Small is Beautiful
- Amory Lovins, Natural Capitalism
- Isaac Asimov, Foundation Series
- What is Self-Actualization? Positive Psychology Program, 5 May 2017.
- Chevron’s Chernobyl in the Amazon.
- Shell pays out $15.5m over Saro-Wiwa killing, The Guardian, 8 June 2009.
- Timeline: Cochabamba Water Revolt, PBS.
- Coca-Cola sucking wells dry in indigenous Mexican town — forcing residents to buy bottled water, The Independent, 18 September 2017.
- Seeds of Doubt, 25 August 2014.
- Honey tests reveal global contamination by bee-harming pesticides, The Guardian, 5 October 2017.
- The 1% grabbed 82% of all wealth created in 2017, 22 January 2018, CNN Money.
- The Fukushima Effect: Decentralization and Diversification.
- Steady State Economics, Herman Daly, 1991.
- Zero Marginal Cost Society, Jeremy Rifkin, 2015.
- Confessions of an Economics Hitman, John Perkins, 2004.