I used to think, after the apocalypse, Mormons and cockroaches would be the only survivors.
After all, Mormons are the most visibly prepared-for-disaster constituency on Earth, with devout households typically having a seven-year supply of food and supplies for, oh, superquakes, nuclear meltdown, zombies, 2012, or whatever God in his infinite and cheeky wisdom sees fit to throw their way. And my own coming-of-age-in-the-1980s generation has been so indoctrinated with the idea that cockroaches can survive anything that no amount of contemporary scientific research will ever convince me otherwise.
But now I know there’s another contender.
Led by a Polish transplant and Princeton University graduate who describes himself as a designer, doctor, educator, engineer, entrepreneur, industrialist, philanthropist, scientist, social entrepreneur and technologist, the Factor E Farm outside of Kansas City, Kansas is leading the “Open Source Ecology” movement. Marcin Jakubowski says he bought a tractor in order to farm, and his tractor broke. He paid to fix it, and it broke again. Frustrated with the planned obsolescence of industrial technology and the rarefied values of privileged educational systems that are irrelevant to survival and prosperity for most of the planet, he merged populist agrarianism with design thinking, an open-source ethos, a kind of perverse Burning Man aesthetic, a smidge of DIY can-do and a bunch of freaky friends, in order to create a new way of thinking about and building everything that matters.
Jakubowski and his Factor E Farm associates decided in 2004 to throw farming as usual out the window and began building their versions what they consider to be the 50 tools and machines essential for sustaining civilization, which they call the Global Village Construction Set. A few things make the Open Source Ecology kids stand out from your average ideological-yet-handy hippies:
They readily acknowledge the usefulness and necessity of powered machines for farming on a scale large enough to feed whole populations; these are not people who think they’re going to save the world with yaks and donkeys.
They adhere to the open-source ideology popularized in software and technology development. In other words, none of the tools or techniques they create or utilize are proprietary; everything is shared with everyone, everywhere.
They’re not complaining about the corporate, capitalistic system keeping them down; they’re suggesting that they’re ready to compete in a genuinely free market.
Jakubowski’s open-source product is, so far, confined to the design of the dozen or so machines (out of the 50) that have been prototyped and tested. He and his crew have built a tractor, a brick press and a host of industrial fabrication tools necessary to manufacture the remainder of their proposed menagerie—all of which anyone is welcome to imitate and improve on from detailed plans. But in the act of sharing their designs—and by virtue of their designs’ strict focus on how to create a sustainable industrial agriculture base—Jakubowski’s team is pushing beyond farming and ecology. What they’re really proposing is an open-source economic system.
But what exactly does “open source” mean?
To open source a technology or product is to make the means of production available to the general public free of charge, whether it’s software code or engineering blueprints. The idea is that, while you might stand to gain monetarily from selling a proprietary means of production, you just might stand to gain more—or at least stand to contribute more—by having the greater populace adopt and improve upon your means of production. Entrusting a large population to improve on ideas—now commonly known as crowdsourcing—may sound dubious to those of us raised under the tenets of private ownership.
However, as Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, points out, the largest and most critical components of the so-called information economy are all based on open-source systems. When he makes that claim, he’s talking about supercomputers, Microsoft, Google, peer-to-peer file sharing and the decentralized democracy inherent in the general population walking around with interconnected computers in their pockets.
“Our mission is to extend the open-source model to the provision of any goods and services,” Jakubowski says. “We believe that a highly distributed, increasingly participatory model of production is the core of a democratic society, where stability is established naturally by the balance of human activity with sustainable extraction of natural resources. This is the opposite of the current mainstream of centralized economies, which have a structurally built-in tendency towards overproduction.”
Jakubowski’s dream of going head-to-head with mainstream economics may bring to mind tilting at windmills, but the open-source ethos is growing larger every day, and has already expanded into custom vehicle production, music distribution and geolocation technologies.
Grand visions may not interest many working-class folks, but seeing as 75 percent of small farmers in New Mexico make less than $10,000 annually, the cost savings of tooling up with the Global Village Construction Set are pretty attractive.
Plus, you’ll be ready for the apocalypse.