Settlements (from A Potent Nostalgia)

This is the third excerpt that we are publishing from Patrick Noble’s book A Potent Nostalgia. The first two excerpts are here and here.

Landlocked towns present greater economic problems than sea, or navigable riverside towns. I speculate that the most ancient successful settlements have been placed by shore/estuary lines. I think that our cities can similarly thrive by the shore, but since we are dependant on agriculture, smaller market towns will be spread evenly inland. Of course as in ancient times the most easily transported foods are dried grains and pulses, which being at least 85% dry matter are very light in proportion to calorific value. Roots, fruits & vegetables are best grown close to the communities which consume them – again an ancient system. Market gardens have naturally ringed both large and small towns, so that city size will be limited by the proximity of land for intensive production. However, history shows us that grain can be traded to mutual comparative advantages, relating to a safe balance of unpredictable scarcity and surplus, combined with the ability to offer some vernacular skills for trading.

Meat and dairy production dovetail nicely and appropriately into variability of terrain, crop rotation and the recycling of surpluses, bi-products and wastes. Cheese, butter and cured meats are durable for trade while perishable meat and milk may be best used by communities which produce them. Woodland can occupy every space from town centres to wilderness – for boat and house/furniture building and where inaccessible simply as a bio pump/wilderness. Turbines powered by wind and water can be managed by the communities which use them and thereby create new skilled roles, which reduce dependency. Direct traction by wind and water, for workshops and factories can be similarly self-determined.

But scarcity and surplus will be unpredictable and so if we are to maintain modern cultures we must be open to innovative trade. For instance, solar panels in desert regions may provide some back-up energy in return for some (limited) exports of grain.

And we must think in those terms – of capital- in labour and in things. Money has proved a delusion.
The current system of aggressive nation states and trade blocks – largely subjected to still more aggressive corporate powers, such as Cargil, Monsanto and so on will prove easy to subvert, since they deal exclusively in price. We return to capital worth in labour and resource. Value has been resonant with social justice in all cultures, and I think most people have come to understand what “real economics” and valued capital might mean. Worth may be a potent social dynamo: both morally and by weight and measure. Corporations and trade blocks are exclusively oil powered, or oil-replacement (a fantasy) powered – not a durable foundation!

While we consider valuation of capital we simultaneously consider ownership of capital and appropriate exchanges. However the Common protects certain resources from such valuation and ownership. Enclosure of those commons into the amorality of property has been the tragedy of pillaged, modernist times. The common defines responsibilities of commoners to inherit, enjoy and pass on an undiminished common.

So while we can welcome valuation of labour and of some resources, such valuation has limits. Commons to reclaim include water, soil, rivers, seas, roads, knowledge….

Alternative economic proposals have been largely ridiculed by “ordinary” people, just as they’ve ridiculed alternative lifestyles. However a simple return to capitalism, the commons and a rejection of the casino may prove a populist and powerful movement. Revival of town centres and village/corner shops accompanied by rejection of the retail park may revive both community worth and self worth. Removing my shoes to sit reverently in a neo Buddhist circle of narcissistic self- importance fills me with the same horror as it would most working people. The selling of health and of body temples by some of the most influential of the organic movement has evoked a similar recoil. But neither the useful wisdom of Buddhism nor good, organic husbandries are tainted by the unpleasantness of the beautiful people. Organic techniques are ordinary techniques following ordinary laws of earth.

The last two hundred years have seen the dangerously rigid application of ideas to an unpredictable and transient world. The odd thing is that opposing, murderous factions have held ideas which had strong original kinship. Capitalism, communism and fascism rose from similar moral springs. The revival of community values in skill, ingenuity, dexterity and self-determination is familiar to them all in different forms and all would overturn injustices of distribution and self-determination applied by unskilled application of mere power in plutocracies, kingdoms, dukedoms and their empires. Choose any one of those three isms and you’d fight for the overthrow of corporate power, retail parks, banking power and neo-liberal economics.

The turmoil we are sure to face (and soon) in the collapse of both oil systems and (closely related) banking systems may not eclipse that which very many have faced in recent times. Imposed, militant free markets, racist and militant fascism and doctrinaire and militant communism have all left a trail of mass slaughter, dispossession, poverty and also legacies of simmering revenge. The literary essays which were waved as flags in the slaughter remain innocent of it. But they remain as lessons to those who’d apply fictions to the world. I don’t de-value the fictions. I am engaged in one as I write.

The current spread of populations (I can only speak of what I know: UK) is inappropriate for future needs and resources. Rural populations must considerably rise as urban populations considerably shrink. Suburbs may re-centre, while town & city parishes may become more distinct – returning a variety of corner shops, work shops, allotments and post offices to the ingenious choices of their communities. We have inherited the same social patterning that our ancestors held in pre-history (I speculate!) and though we may live in a great city we must, by nature create appropriate villages within. Our street and corner shop may be invisible to a town planner, but they replicate the inner patterns of the soul.

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