On A Fast Train

Sharon March 9th, 2008

Well you’ve been on a fast train and it’s going off the rails
And you can’t come back can’t come back together again
And you start breaking down
In the pouring rain
Well you’ve been on a fast train – Lyrics by Van Morrison, Sung by the incomparable Solomon Burke

If you don’t read The Automatic Earth, you should.  Over the last couple of days, Roel and Nicole have been meticulously documenting the financial disaster unfolding before all of our eyes.  The news is bad – the losses are probably more than our economy can bear.  The bad job news is worse than we thought, and equity, which has driven the economy, has fallen to the lowest level in six decades – with further to go.  We’re in trouble folks.  There are links to more relevant articles in the idiosyncratic news feed.  But the aggregate is that we’re in trouble – the train is off the rails.

Will we go back to where we’ve been?  I don’t know – it is possible that recapitalization could come, although I have my doubts, but the inflationary cycle of food and fuel prices isn’t going to change.  None of us, I suspect are going to get richer anytime soon – and the odds are, we’re be poorer in a host of ways.  And that means in a whole lot of miserable ways – the “ok, honey, you have to patch the boots and wear them one more year because we can’t afford any more” or “We can only have meat on Sundays” kind of ways.  And for some of us, it’ll get worse than that – we’re past “put on a sweater” into ‘wear you coat in the house.”

Some of my readers have been on the early end of this, and they send me their stories – accounts of what their food pantry is giving out, or what foreclosure is really like.  The generally do so in a kind and gently humorous way – they aren’t coming to me for answers they know I don’t have, they are trying to tell me where we’re going.  Kelly, one of my readers gave me permission to tell you all this:

“My grandmother used to tell me stories about taking mustard sandwiches to schoo, because there wasn’t anything to eat. I admit, I never thought that could happen to us, but now we’re losing the house, and the credit cards are maxed and we have no money, and Thursday I sent my daughter to school with a ketchup sandwich.  I guess I need to go to the food pantry – I know where it is, because I always brought things there.  Now I’m going to go stand in line.”

I doubt Kelly will be the last person to write to me with those kinds of stories.  And I wish I knew some magic bullet, some way to say “No, it won’t hurt you any more.”  But I don’t.  The simple truth is that it probably will hurt a lot of us.

What can you do?  The only thing that I can think of to offer you is this – it is time to for most of us to take one foot out of the formal economy, and put it in the informal or subsistence economy.  The truth is that the formal economy only accounts for 1/4 of all economic activity worldwide – most people in most of the world live in the informal economy at least partly.

 The informal economy includes subsistence economics, under-the-table economics, illegal economic activity, the household economy and a whole host of other ways of keeping body and soul together that don’t get measured in GDPs or reported on your taxes (ok, you are supposed to report some of these, and I cannot advise you not to).

The reality is that if we have a true Depression, in which money is hard to come by (seems to be the pattern we’re seeing right now), we’re going to need a strong, resilient informal and subsistence economy to meet the needs we now meet in the formal economy.  We’re going to need social structures to support the elderly and disabled, gardens to grow food for those who can’t afford to buy it, small home businesses in our neighborhoods for those who can no longer afford to travel long distances to run “errands.” The faster we get this economy up and running, the better off we are.

The resilience and power of the subsistence economy, then, must be central to our understanding of how to protect ourselves in hard times.  If we can get much or most of what we need outside the monetary economy, and improve the resilience of the larger economy, we can make ourselves more secure.  Gene Logsdon, in his book _The Contrary Farmer’s Invitation to Gardening_ entitles one of his chapters “Gardening to Save us From ‘The Economy’” and says what he means is,

I am talking about how in gardening you can remove yourself

from the enslaving dictums of financial accounting altogether

You do not have to worry about whether your work makes

money in the usual sense.  Your garden exists in a lovely place

outside the hot arena of profit and loss, and this can

be the beginning of true economy. (_Contrary Farmer_ 28)

Logsdon goes on to describe the ways in which gardens act as hedges against both inflation and disaster, and offer stability not just for the individual gardener, but for the economy at large, yet another way in which the formal economy is served by the existence of the informal  economy.  He adds,

It seems to me that the part of ‘the economy’ that depends on

 biological processes, not industrial processes – especially

 food, but also renewable resources such as cotton and wool

and other natural fibers for clothing, and wood for    

construction, furniture and fuel – is particularly vulnerable

 to the volatile and chaotic conditions of the industrial

manufacturing marketplace.  An ear of corn grows at its

own sweet pace, no matter how the interest rates are

manipulated.  Much more biological production than

is now the case should be protected from this market

vulnerability, and the most practical way of doing so is

by having more gardens.  A garden economy would

 provide society with a much safer ‘social security’

than pension money sunk into volatile stock and bond

markets that can collapse overnight. (ibid, 32)
Logsdon’s call is to stabilize the whole economy by expanding the unofficial economy, and by removing some of the most delicate and essential elements of our security from the vulnerable space of growth capitalism.  Now this is quite the opposite of what we have been trained to believe.  Our culture has pressed us to believe that security is monetary, rather than communal or biological, and that a stable economy is created by prioritizing the smaller formal economy over the larger informal one.  But in fact, as Logsdon argue, it is the unofficial economy that offers us stability, that keeps us alive and meets many of our basic needs, and the expansion of the informal economy ought to be our priority.            

This is both important and radical, for several reasons.  The first is that it can relieve some of our fears about the future.  That is, the end of our conventional jobs and the life we’ve been living need not be the end of the world.  I don’t want to romanticize what an economic or energy crisis will look like – I am not suggesting we will make a painless transition between the official and unofficial economies.  But it is possible to live partly or even wholly within the unofficial economy, and to function well there.  If we begin now to reinforce our own connections to the informal sector of the economy, to reduce our reliance on our jobs and our investments and strengthen our investment in our gardens and our neighbors, we can soften economic blows.  The whole economy (formal and informal combined)  is by its very nature, more robust than the formal economy, less vulnerable to short term change.  That is not to say that one can get rich in the subsistence or informal economy – in fact, you almost certainly can’t do much more than meet most basic needs there. But within the subsistence economy, most of us could have enough – maybe.

The other thing that this means is that our economic choices do not come down merely to capitalism vs. communism, as so many conventional economists would have it.  A subsistence economy can contain meaningful elements of both and things that are neither.  As founder of Peasant Economics Teodor Shanin puts it

The conventional view is that every country operates

somewhere on a continuum between the state-run

economy and the pure capitalist economy; between

left and right. Countries can move along this line, of

course: if capitalism isn’t working, the state can intervene

and vice versa. After the fall of communism, eastern

Europe inevitably tried to embrace capitalism. But the

truth is that most of mankind lives outside this model.

So we find in the former Soviet economies that while

officials are trying to privatise the economy, most people

are living in the informal economy that is neither

communist nor capitalist.

This is important in part because again we find that we have not been offered, or even made aware of, the full range of economic choices.  Shanin’s scholarship tells us that there are whole chunks of our economic story – the largest chunks – that were left out.  Most of us are to a degree participants in the real economy, the whole economy of which the economics of corporations and governments are merely a small portion.  And, as Shanin points out, most of the world lives in the peasant economy, mostly apart from the larger economy. 

The Peasant Economy is based largely on subsistence labor with some contributions from the formal economy, but it is also characterized by a different way of thinking – the goal becomes to survive, and also rather than accumulating short term wealth, to preserve what you have for the next generation.  As Shanin explained it in an article in _New Scientist Magazine_,

“The concept emerged in Africa 25 years ago.

Researchers began to notice that there was no

Economic explanation for how the majority of

the population survived. They didn’t own land.

They didn’t seem to have any assets. According

to conventional economics they should have died

of hunger long ago, but they survived. To understand

this, researchers looked at how these people actually

lived, rather than at economic models.

They found that their way of life was completely

the opposite of how a human being in an industrial

society survives. They didn’t have a job, pension,

steady place to work or regular flow of income.

Families held a range of occupations from farming

and selling in the market to doing odd jobs or

handicrafts. Their aim was survival rather than the

maximisation of profit. Rather than earn wages, labour

was used within family.”

As long as you have your job, you might as well keep it, but unless you are the daughter of the owner or have tenure in a University with an endowment that means it can essentially never go under, I’d tend to think now is a really good time to start selling your baked goods, cutting firewood, repairing small appliances, home brewing beer, or some other way of starting to slip into the informal economy. 

We still have to pay our mortgages and a host of things that don’t take chickens or barter, but however this plays out, we are safer if we can move a little bit in each part of our economy – relying entirely on the formal economy makes us vulnerable to its deepest limitations.

We’ve been on one heck of a fast train ride – and when it starts breaking down, because we’re under a strain, all we do is get off the fast train, and keep on going in the ways that sustain us.  The good news is that we can sustain ourselves – that what breaks down is not the whole of the economy, but the big shiny edifice of the formal economy.  And underneath it is something else – something that cannot give you dreams of riches, but that is ultimately of more use, is more robust and more hopeful, than a short-lived journey on a fast train.



21 Responses to “On A Fast Train”

  1. [...] billing-and-invoicing wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt The bad job news is worse than we thought, and equity, which has driven the economy, has fallen to the lowest level in six decades – with further to go. We’re in trouble folks…. [...]

  2. Leila says:

    Yesterday I spent an hour in the Edible Schoolyard Garden in Berkeley. This place has so much press that the name and the idea seem like “elitist” Chez Panisse silliness. But being there reminded me that when I moved to that block thirteen years ago, the garden was one season away from its beginnings as an acre of asphalt. I lived in that neighborhood for three years at the time, before moving to East Oakland. Since 1996, the garden has gone from heaps of compost to a wonderland, with chickens, olive and other fruit trees, and extensive beds planted right now with cover crops, winter wheat, favas, herbs and dinosaur kale. Many materials are reclaimed from the site or other Berkeley locations.

    Then I went to a spiritual meeting at a run-down but well-loved clubhouse not far away. It was for a twelve step program to which I do not belong – I went to hear a friend speak. The unity and power in that room, in that house, reminded me of the reach of this quasi-anarchist movement.

    Between the “magic” of the schoolyard garden morphing out of asphalt, and the “magic” of the twelve-step clubhouse bustling with people, I was reminded of our power to take care of each other and the planet, just by joining together.

    Yes, the schoolyard garden receives enormous sums of money and huge amounts of energy from the rich and powerful, through Ms. Waters and her lobbying. But the actual labor of making the garden is visible and it’s achievable. Anybody could do it given the energy; the materials are all around us. Anybody could make the asphalt bloom if she had a neighborhood to help her. The Schoolyard Garden is intended to show people what we can do.

    Whatever is coming, we can survive it. We need to reach out to each other and we need to turn to our Inner Source, whatever you choose to call that.

  3. Ani says:

    The gas prices alone- along with home heating fuel, rising food prices, etc are getting to many people I know. I was thinking though how important it is for local communities to really “do community”- and how most don’t. That most of my neighbors are still wedded to their jobs and commitments- and have little time to devote to anything else, believing that money in the bank will be there for them I suppose.

    I was thinking of going to a jam session today,but didn’t want to spend the gas money- so I stayed home. Was wishing there was one closer to home, but that also means that my neighbors need to play instruments and most don’t(sigh)- we have so become, for the most part a nation used to paying for “services”, including our entertainment which is “professional” of course….wonder if this will change….?

    BTW- there is a movement out there which is suggesting thst people spend their tax rebate checks close to home- such as in their own state- at local businesses, farms, etc- hope this gains traction. Local will be different for all of us of course-and this only applies to those of us here in the U.S.- but I am hoping that buying junk at Wal Mart or Best Buy is NOT how most of the money is spent…..
    I believe you have written about this already Sharon- but can’t hurt to emphasize some of what one could do with this check……

  4. Rosa says:

    I tried to ask Barbara Ehrenreich at a reading a few years ago if, when she was researching Nickeled & Dimed, she had hooked up with any of the radical organizations like Food Not Bombs for help (because we were out there serving free food when she was here working for minimum wage). She didn’t take my question.

    But the truth is that, if you take her argument in that book (the system is rigged against people in low-wage jobs), there are two possible routes for change. One is to work on reform, which is what she is doing. And the other is to step out of the system to the extent you can. And you can do both at once. But only the second option will make your life better *right now*.

    Along with the Victory gardeners and the community-health groups and the groups reforming rental and foreclosure laws and all the other stuff we really do need, we need the radical response too – the guerilla gardeners and squatters and dumpster-divers and mobs who un-evict and un-arrest people.

  5. Amelia says:


    Two data points, for what they’re worth:

    One of our neighbours is building an addition; he and his wife mean to move his mother up from Arizona to live with them. He’s doing the majority of the work himself (with a couple of our other neighbours to help as needed) and needs a space to store materials as he builds, and came over last week to ask if he could enclose our carport in the back garden and keep things there, paying rent to us rather than the rental fee on a POD.

    My husband asked if he would consider paying the rent in trade: the next thing I knew, the two of them were drawing up plans to finish rewiring the phone and electrical systems, and our neighbour has further promised to teach our son carpentry and wiring as he has time between classes and his job.

    And the local community raised the funds to save a 25-year-old organic community garden from development: all of the funds left over will go towards purchasing the other plots around the city, to secure them against the times to come.

  6. I’m an Automatic Earth reader, too. Even though they usually scare the crap out of me.

    I would like to humbly suggest, in light of the way things seem to be going downhill pretty fast, that if there are any necessary tools or seeds or supplies that folks know they will not able to get locally, it might be a good idea to get online or on the phone and get them on their way asap. I just ordered another soil block maker, because mine is probably nearly twenty years old now and has seen better days, and I don’t want to be without one should it break.

    I also ordered a few more packages of open pollinated seeds for backup and to make sure I’ll have enough to cover for my parents, who live not too far away but who have been visiting and helping my infirm grandmother in another state for the past few months and haven’t had a chance yet to digest what’s been going down.

    As an aside, I think we all pretty much can agree that the stock market has unfortunately become our leading national economic indicator. (Otherwise, I doubt the Fed would be so frantically attempting to prop it up by cutting everything the throat of the rest of the economy.) I check a Dow Jones site pretty much every day, and the other day decided to use their historic chart program to show the past three years of trend. It’s looking pretty scarily like a classic bell curve to me – and if so, we are well on the downside of it right now. Have a look if you like.


  7. Rebecca says:

    I’ve got another data point. I got to sit in a gas line yesterday. No; we’re not having gas shortages here. Gas ranges from $3.02 to $3.30 a gallon here right now. Most stations are about $3.14. Being as broke as I am, I went to one of the cheap stations and there was a line, 5 deep as some pumps. And this was a big station. (Lucky for me, my fill up valve is on the odd side, so I got in a short line.) Yes, all of this to save $.12 a gallon on gasoline. Most people wouldn’t have done it. But there were a hundred people out there doing so. Furthermore, all of them (pardon the expression) were obviously as broke-ass poor as me. There wasn’t a newer model car in that line.

  8. tk says:

    Oh Sharon, this scares the be-jeezus out of me. My husband and I are trying to buy a house — him, because he thinks it’ll be a good investment, and me, because I want somewhere to garden and some place to OWN that I can’t get kicked out of by the landlord … of course considering we’d be in mortgage for at least 30 years we could always get kicked out. And I wonder how I, with a newly diagnosed chronic disease, can actually contribute to my own household or to the subsistence economy. It’s all scary and depressing, but I still kind of feel ahead of the game because at least I’m THINKING about these things, at least they are on my radar screen. I think even though it will be financially harder on my husband and me to buy than it is to continue renting, we almost have to buy because … garden? Storage. Pets. Place to keep spare relatives in event of emergency.

  9. Jen H. says:

    Sharon, I often get scared when I read your posts (not because you’re scary, but because circumstances are) but lately I’m just beyond scared. I read what Ilargi had to say at Automatic Earth and I thought, holy crap, I know I’ve been trying to prepare, slowly but surely, and I know I’ve been often paralyzed with fear, not to mention overwhelmed with a baby and my husband in the process of losing his job…. but tonight I’m taking my list of Stuff I Need to Get ASAP, and I’m going to rigorously put it in priority order, and then I am going to buy a whole bunch of things. I know I can’t “buy” my way out of anything, obviously, but hell yeah, I want to make sure I get all those pieces for doing rainwater collection, and get more seeds, and get some more tools, and more food for storage and containers to put it in, RIGHT NOW. At least we are fortunate enough to have some savings to spend. Of course, if the bank comes for the house, I don’t know what I’ll do, but if we’re in that boat then they’ll be chasing down thousands of others at the same time. That’s a big question on my mind– if banks try to call in mortgages en masse, how are they going to physically kick everyone out, I mean entire towns and cities worth of people? What would be the point of emptying all those houses? Who would buy them? This makes me think that if we’re heading for a hard crash I might as well stay in my house.

    Thanks also for your posts on food storage. Slowly I’m getting it together. I wish I could be faster.

  10. JenH, I sure understand where you are coming from! My husband’s job is going away for good in June, and he and I both are transitioning (or trying to) to other employment. It’s an added stress on top of what the economy is doing, and at times it’s almost too much to bear. So I just keep working on things – garden things, self-sufficiency things, job things. That’s all I can do. The rest is beyond my control and will play out however it will.

    I was talking about the mortgage loan call thing with my husband tonight, and his opinion was that if the mortgage companies called in all those loans, they would be breaching the loan contracts and would be stopped by some legal means. I don’t know if that’s true or not, I’d have to go dig out and re-read our house loan papers (I’ll definitely do that soon, just not tonight.) But yes, with the news saying that more than half of Americans have negative equity in their homes, that’s a lot of people with outstanding loans that would be out on the street if these loans were to be called in. Somehow, some way (and perhaps this is naive) I would hope that something would be done to prevent that. Although, I don’t know what could be done, except perhaps for some emergency legislation “freezing” loan call-ins and subsequent foreclosures. That is something I don’t know that the government would be willing or able to do. I guess if things go the way Automatic Earth suggests, we’ll find out.

  11. Sharon says:

    Hi Folks – Well, you aren’t the only one who gets scared reading this stuff – it isn’t always tons of fun to write it ;-) .

    Re: calling loans. Nicole of The Automatic Earth was kind enough to explain it in the food storage class – maybe I’ll see if she minds if I copy her explanation over here, since she’s way more expert on this stuff than I am. My own feeling is that, as best we can, the idea is to sit tight and delay, delay, delay and ride this out, because the banks are probably more doomed than we are. The reality is that they won’t be allowed (for reasons of stability) to call in millions of loans – it will be stopped somewhere down the line, because there are a host of political reasons. But I’m just laying odds here.

    It sucks. It is scary. And the reality is that we have no idea what is happening.

    The only consolation I can offer people is this – as we’re sitting here saying “things are falling apart, the economy could collapse at any second” all I can say is “this is different from yesterday, how?” Black humor helps sometimes.


  12. I hear you, Sharon. And you’re right – we probably know very little about what is going on, in truth. All we can do is speculate and try to piece things together from the outside while groping in the dark with few clues and a flashlight that’s on the fritz…

    It does help to know that we’ve got several months worth of basic food items in storage, tons of fruit trees/shrubs, all the garden seeds we need and a three year old highly amended organic garden plot waiting to receive them. And neighbors who most likely are similarly prepared – or even more likely, better prepared – for whatever happens. (Next best thing to living amongst the Amish in a potential collapse is to be living amongst the Mormons! Hard core food storage and self sufficiency is a longstanding tradition here.)

    I’ll go to the food storage class post and try to dig up Nicole’s note.

  13. Oh, one last note and I’ll toddle off and start making my “to do” list for the day.

    Don’t forget the pets. Add a few buckets of pet food to your list, now, before you nearly forget like I almost did. ;-)

  14. WNC Observer says:


    A few thoughts:

    1) Gardening is a good first step. My next step this year is to get into beekeeping. I’m going to learn how to cook with honey rather than sugar as much as possible, thus removing one more link to the formal economy. Rabbits will probably be my next project, but I can’t swing it this year – hopefully this is going to be a slow motion train wreck!

    2) I’ll probably be producing more honey than we can use in short order. I could sell the surplus. I am thinking, though, that it might serve as a handy item for barter. Barter is another important aspect of the informal economy that you didn’t mention. There was quite a bit written about it in the 1970s (the most relevant time period besides the 1930s to what we are facing now). It can be hard to work out barter transactions, so having something that everyone can use and can be multiplied from small units (eggs are another good barter item) really helps to swing a deal. I am thinking that setting up a local barter exchange website would be an excellent community relocalization project.

    3) Once one is a proficient gardener, or if one is confronted with the problem of little or no land of one’s own (particularly a problem for the increasing numbers that will be renting rather than owning), another option to consider is garden sharecropping. This brings the old idea of farm sharecropping into residential areas. There will likely continue to be many homeowners for quite some time that will not have the time or energy or skill or equipment or inclination to raise a garden themselves on their own land. However, that land is just sitting there, and food prices continue to rise. I am betting that at least a few such people in each neighborhood might be open to being approached with a business proposition: you grow a garden on their land, in exchange for the owner getting half the produce. For people without any land of their own, this might be the only viable strategy for producing much of their own food. For those with some, but not enough land, this is a way to ramp up their production to something approaching 100% of their needs. This also creates a possible pathway for some gardeners to become market gardeners, producing at a large enough scale to generate a substantial surplus to be bartered or sold at local farmer’s markets.

  15. Greenpa says:

    It IS very scary; it’s not paranoid. I was looking for a particular word in the general media noise, and saw if for the first time last week – “depression”; not recession.

    We bartered for the expenses of our new puppy.

  16. Jen H. says:

    Yes, Sharon, black humor helps! Especially that bit you just provided! LOL I have to say I also agree with the “delay and sit tight” advice; glad I’m not the only one thinking that way.

    Idaho Locavore, it does sound like we are in remarkably similar circumstances right now. Just keep reminding yourself to breathe, to feel the ground under your feet, and to enjoy what you’re able to enjoy, and I will try to do the same.

  17. ~Dawn says:

    I have two questions
    What do you have for suggestions for those who live in apartments and have limited storage space and planting area?
    What do you suggest for us folks who are north facing and get NO direct sunlight, what can be grown in containers?


  18. Greenpa says:

    Jen H – I have a phrase for that kind of humor I like better; stolen from the Germans.
    “Galgenhumor” – translates as “gallows humor”. Sure, “black humor” has been in use forever- but what the hell, we might as well all go down the drain pure PC.

  19. olympia says:

    This post inspired me to both make a contribution to our local food bank AND order seeds for the garden I’m hoping to expand this year.

  20. Dave Smith says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I’ve been reading your posts for many months.

    In response to your mention of Gene Logsdon, he writes a weekly post on our blog site, OrganicToBe.org, that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

    Dave Smith

  21. I appreciate you for spelling it out so clearly, when i started have a look at this I was a skeptic, but now I am always in search of info. Many thanks once again, I hope you don’t mind if I link this tomy blog in order that my readers can benefit from this info aswell Thanks

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