Communality, local autonomy, and local
self-sufficiency ― three
essentials for
long-term survival

September 28, 2005

by  George Salzman    <>

this page is at

      I must preface this note by acknowledging the impossibility of absolute local self-sufficiency and the improbability of absolute local autonomy in the 21st century. I see these rather as desirable ― even essential ― social goals which we must come as close to as possible. Since I assume that long-term survival may be possible, there is a logical contradiction here, which I ask you to forgive.

      Two recent notes,
We don't need a hurricane; the time for revolution is now! (htm), posted 2005-09-22, and
Disrespect hurts Science for the People list, and the “left” in general, by eroding mutual trust (htm), posted 2005-09-14,
resulted in an unusual number of responses.

      Most encouraging to me is that apparently many, many people are beginning to move deliberately to assess the threats, both social and ecological, that we all face and, equally significant, they are beginning to act to overcome the looming dangers, hopefully before it is too late.

      I have not been able to answer as many of you as I want to, and am having some difficulty deciding how to focus my energies and time. But please continue writing, because it is a great source of emotional energy for me when I get your messages. It keeps assuring me that I am not wasting my time in what I am doing. Among the mail I've got are several themes that seem very important to pursue, and yesterday I posted three additional items on my website, namely:

Developing community, increasing local self-sufficiency and local autonomy (htm). This is correspondence between Wayne Cooke <> in Washington State and me, dealing with a hands-on approach to solving survival problems in the face of dwindling fossil-fuel resources, which will force tremendous changes in the energy-squandering society of the U.S.

Bibliography on Peak Oil (htm). James Herod <> assembled an extensive bibliography that should prove useful, especially for anyone still in doubt about the seriousness of the looming energy shortage problems that lie ahead, and not that far into future.

The Petroleum Commons: Local, Islamic, and Global (htm). This article by George Caffentzis <> juxtaposes the historical difference between water, until relatively recently considered to be a common (or free) resource available to all, and petroleum, which only recently has begun to be claimed as a common resource rather than wealth owned privately or by governments. I learned much from Caffentzis's careful account and analysis.

      Yet one other revealing article, called to my attention by Bill Templer <>, is The Uses of an Earthquake by Harry M. Cleaver, which is at As I wrote Wayne Cooke, “[I]t tells about the development of true community in Tepito, a relatively small barrio (section) of Mexico City. Perhaps its main theoretical importance is in its depiction of the strong ― probably critical ― interdependence of communality and communal autonomy that it explores ― the need of each for the other, if either is to be achieved and maintained. I think it's a “must read”.”

      There's a veritable forest of related ideas to be sorted out and woven together into a consistent fabric of understanding to enable us to know what we must do to try to achieve survival of a livable biosphere and a humane society. In addition to questions of community, local autonomy, local self-sufficiency, the earth as “the commons” belonging to all of us (a concept I would endorse), there are insights from the natural sciences. For example, one idea that ought to be considered is the desirability of giving up the currently prevailing addiction to power, i.e. power as it is understood in physics (not in anarchism).

      Power means, to a physicist, the rate of doing work. Work is always done by a process in which energy is transformed, and the prevailing ideology holds that “faster is better”. Machines, which transform other forms of energy (for example the chemical energy stored in gasoline) into what I will term technological energy, are supposedly better than people and animals, which transform the chemical energy stored in food (food energy) into what I will term metabolic energy. In short, machines are better than people or animals; more powerful machines are better than less powerful machines. Technological energy is invariably assumed to be better than metabolic energy. The ideological mantra that conditions so much of our psychology is, “more power is better.” Just look at the advertisements of competing automobile manufacturers to see a bit of evidence. Which car goes from zero speed to 80 miles per hour in under 5 seconds? Which one has the most powerful engine?

      The problem with powerful machines is that they create more overall destruction in performing a task than less powerful machines. This consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the invariable increase of Entropy in any real physical process ought to be taken into account in everyday life. In particular, scientists ought to pursue it and make it widely known to the general population. I wrote a bit about the damage caused by powerful machines in a paper some years ago, which said, in part,

      “The spatial characteristic common to all explosive processes is the existence of large spatial gradients, that is, large changes in the values of some physical quantities from one place to a relatively nearby place. For example, in an ordinary internal combustion engine, say gasoline or diesel, the explosive burning of the fuel-air mixture produces a large pressure difference between the inner and outer surfaces of the piston, and the piston “explodes” outward, delivering power to the crankshaft. This is, from an engineering perspective, desirable. But it also produces undesirable “by-products”, pollution of various forms ― noise, waste heat, nitrogen oxides, particulate carbon emissions, and so on. To the extent that it is possible to substitute bicycles for automobiles (as was largely forced upon Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern block Communist nation-states), a shift to reliance on “slower” metabolic energy would be better than continued use of “faster” non-metabolic, technological energy.”

      That essay, from 1998, was part of my (unsuccessful) application for a Fulbright award to support my work here in Mexico. The full text, from which the above is excerpted, is at

      Another older essay, from 1992, that is still very relevant to these considerations, is “The Gold Rush” at, which ends with a list of “a few of the changes that I believe are essential for humane and long-term ecological survival of the human species”, and the very first graphic I put (with considerable effort) on my website.

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Last update of this page: September 28, 2005