Adapting To the Lean Economy

by David Fleming

Gaia Education
3 min readFeb 5, 2021

Getting used to the idea of the oil peak was the easy part. The hard part, starting now, is facing up to how big this thing is going to be.

It will mean deep and lengthening energy shocks affecting (first) oil and (later) gas and the electricity grid. It will probably be part of a package of trouble: climate, water, food shortages and destabilised populations. We will come to regret the delay and denial which has stolen the fifty years we should have had to get ready. We will be in trouble.

And yet this could also be the moment when we start to build a political economy which will persist far into the future, in a world in which the short-lived special case of the market economy, with its ludicrous dependence on fossil energy and sustained economic growth, becomes an embarrassing memory. There is a way of achieving permanence, of integrating human ecology into the ecology of the rest of the planet. The principle that lies at the heart of that is scale.

The Right Size

The biologist J. B. S. Haldane published a famous essay in 1927 with the title, “On Being the Right Size”. With each advance in size, there has to be a corresponding increase in complication. Why so?

Well there are lots of reasons, but the main one is that large organisms have a small surface area relative to their size, and that makes it difficult for them to absorb food and water. “Comparative anatomy”, he summarises, “is largely the story of the struggle to increase surface in proportion to volume… The higher animals are not larger than the lower because they are more complicated. They are more complicated because they are larger.”

Regrettable Necessities

What, then, does “complication” mean in the case of our political economy and way of life? Well, it refers to something which, to adapt a term used in mainstream economics, is called the “intermediate economy” also known as “regrettable necessities”, that is, things which are necessary, given the size and structure that we happen to have at the moment, but regrettable in that we don’t actually get any pleasure from them

The most obvious example of a regrettable necessity is the transport of goods: transport is a necessity, given the way we organise things at the moment, but there is nothing in the actual process of transport which adds to the quality of the goods or to the flavour of the food.

A Necessary & Unregrettable Shift

Now, local communities will never be able to supply all their needs completely. The aim is not complete localisation, but to achieve an utterly revolutionary shift towards localisation.

Going Local — Where To Start

When the oil peak hits, it will be the intermediate economy that collapses. That sounds like good news, but in fact it will be terrible news for everyone except those who have already succeeded, or can quickly succeed, in building small-scale living systems in which the complication — the reliance on a massive intermediate economy — has been all-but eliminated. That means going local, and here are some ways to make a start:

  1. Create and maintain a network of like-minded people — Talk about the practical things you can do.
  2. Prepare for the transition. There will be shocks during which (say) petrol is unobtainable and supermarket shelves empty. Households should have several days supply of food and bottled water. Think about everything you may need; start adding a little bit extra to your regular shopping.
  3. Get involved in politics in some way — Get up to speed about the kind of national political initiative you would like to see.
  4. Keep cheerful — Decide to join together and make a future, locally.

This is an excerpt from the Economic Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability. If you would like to learn more, then you can find out more about our upcoming Economic Design online course here.

Gaia Education is a leading-edge provider of sustainability education that promotes thriving communities within planetary boundaries.



Gaia Education

Leading provider of sustainability education that promotes thriving communities within planetary boundaries.