By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Lean Logic (LL), “A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It,” David Fleming’s magnum opus, was put into form for publication this year after his death in 2010 by his friend and colleague Shaun Chamberlin. (, by Chamberlin, is a less daunting a more linear version of one of the narratives in LL.) I first took note of it in :
I’m delighted to announce the impending publication of David Fleming’s astonishing book Lean Logic, an encyclopedic guide to the principles and practice of life in a deindustrializing world. Fleming was a central figure in the British sustainability movement for decades, and played an important role in the founding of the UK Green Party, the Transition Town Movement, and the New Economics Foundation; he spent some thirty years assembling Lean Logic as a comprehensive book on the ways of thinking and acting we’re going to need to get through the mess ahead.
I’m a sucker for beautiful books, and LL is a beautiful book. Here’s one of the many woodcuts from Howard Phipps:
But I’m also a sucker for the particular kind of beauty — see especially — that comes from breaking down a topic that is not amenable to narrative treatment into entries, and then cross-linking the entries; books like the old version of Roget’s Thesaurus, that had synonyms and antonyms in parallel columns, or dictionaries like the OED, or the Dictionary of the Khazars LL is such a book. :
Each entry is cross referenced via an asterisk system to other entries so you can find yourself moving seamlessly from ‘Sleep’ to ‘Private and Public Sphere’, from ‘Conversation’ to ‘Disconnection’, from ‘False Analogy’ to ‘The Straw Man’ to ‘Aunt Sally’. David’s immense erudition is evident in every entry, populated as they are by everyone from Philetas of Cos, ‘philosopher, romantic poet and tutor to the young Ptolemy II in the fourth century BC’ to contemporary economists and philosophers. Yet every entry is also shot through with his own especial breed of irreverence and his lifelong and unshakeable faith in the ability of individuals, if left to themselves, to organise life to perfection.
(LL’s structure also makes it excellent bathroom (UK: “loo”) reading, and at 623 pages LL also serves to hold the tank top down, a fine example of stacking functions.)
The non-Amazon reviews I can find seem to be mostly from small transition town blogs from the UK (; . and more on David Fleming from . The Mid-Wales Permaculture Network summarizes the intellectual origins of LL:
The Lean perspective originates from the Lean Production systems developed in the 1940s at a Toyota factory in Japan; it maintained low back-up stocks of parts and finished goods, and that forced the whole productive process to develop rapid reactions and to achieve very low rates of error. This in turn meant that workers had responsibility for taking timely decisions in response to local circumstances, forestalling errors rather than waiting for them to happen.
Since then lean production has evolved into the more broadly based system of management known as lean thinking, the guiding principle of Lean Logic. In the Dictionary, Fleming applies Lean Logic to a future scenario (not a forecast, he insists) of more or less rapid energy descent and climate change (the Climacteric), covering similar ground to David Holmgren’s Future Scenarios (available as a book or online at www.futurescenarios.org), though in much greater scope and detail./p>
The Lean perspective is very evident in that many words you look up in the dictionary will steer you towards a Lean entry; so Permaculture takes you to Lean Food Production.
Permaculture, eh? Let’s start at the Permaculture entry and see where we end up (p. 261). Note the asterisks:
Permaculture is designed to produce a yield within a *closed-loop system, recycling as much as it can of its own *waste, relying on renewable sources of *energy and on ecosystem services such as a healthy soil and natural predators. It uses the *diversity of plants and animals, devising ways to integrate them into productive, *small-scale, local guilds and ecologies. It applies tested patterns to local situations and values the opportunities supplied at the margins between distinct ecologies.
There is emphasis on close observation and personal interaction with the ecology, on the need to adjust our own *intentions in the light of what we observe, and on creative responses to changes in it.
Permaculture has applications both to food production and to whole human habitats. It airms to build complex mosaics of ecological exchange, producing a rich flow of food and *materials with the minimum need for intervention.
I found Fleming’s focus on opportunities at the (literal) margins interesting; I put a good deal of time into the raspberry patch and the front garden area, which are my interfaces to the town; and to protecting the edges of the vegetable garden, with fishing line and distracting plants, from deer. One of the reasons I like permaculture is that I seem to end up doing the right thing without necessarily knowing it at the time; when you find a field like that, you stick with it. But I’d be interested in knowing what practioners in the readership think.
Following an asterisk, let’s go to *Small-scale, which we find redirects us to *Scale (pp 412-414). Here we have a longish entry in the form of an essay, which I excerpt. Again, watch the asterisks:
The advantages that large scale does enjoy come at a high cost. The key to this is that a large system has a relatively short *boundary (border, edge, surface) across which it can obtain its *needs. Large animals and societies have to go to a lot of trouble to import sufficient nutrients and energy to which then have to be distributed over the larger distances in their bodies, with waste having to travel all the way back to the boundaries
(As we often see in the “Shipping” section of Water Cooler.)
And in a large human *community, material waste comes up against the *sorting problem, and tends to be lost from the system rather than recycled.
Well now, that sounds just like our little problem with the landfill! I had intended to take another path on our way toward *resilience, but let’s look at the *sorting problem (p. 435):
Work can be divided into two essential kinds: Mixing and sorting. There are *exceptions subject to circumstances, but as a rule it can be affirmed that mixing is most efficiently done on a large scale, while sorting is most efficiently done on a small scale. This latter is an example of a diseconomy (inefficiency) of scale.
[C]onsider the case of bread. We start with the ingredients, ready and waiting in the village bakery: Flour, water, yeast, salt; an oven, bread tins, wood; the *expertise of the baker. Now light the fire, mix the dough, bake, turn-out, sell. This is primarily a mixing operation; the stores of bulk ingredients are mixed and turned into a more complex product; and it has required a lot of energy, as proved by the ash, which is all that is left of the wood. It is clear that economies of scale apply…. But then there is the sorting out to do. From each of these processes, there is an end-product and there is also leftover waste such as: empty bottles, broken pots, bent nails, urine, faeces, and unwanted paper. If a *closed-loop [back to the permaculture entry!] is to be maintained, that lot has to be sorted. Now, the first principle of sorting is to try to stop it getting scrambled in the first place. Sorting starts with the first moment of use. But all this depends on it being done on a small scale.
Generally speaking, the sorting of *waste on a small scale has these properties (relative to sorting at large scale):
Fleming goes on to list eight properies of small-scale sorting, of which I will extract three particularly relevant to my landfill experience:
5. It avoids the disgusting and dangerous properties of industrial-scale waste.
6. It is cheaper: Small-scale sorting sits easily in the *informal economy. Large-scale sorting is a horrible job that has to be paid for.
8. It requires less transport, since waste materials do not have to be driven to a sorting centre and back.
(All confirming the view that the intrusion of an out-of-state but politically metastatic trash company, which has destroyed local composters, curbside recycling, and the time-honored Maine tradition of dump-picking, and is filling the ground it controls with out-of-state trash as fast as ever it can, for profit, is bad for the state. It’s the wrong scale. Fleming concludes:
The use of the small scale has benign implications. It limits the depth of disorder that is likely to build up [in the case of a landfill, a literal depth] if the sorting task is allowed to accumulate on a large scale [, Baldacci being the Democrat governor who got us into this mess].
It [the use of the small scale] may, therefore, avoid the necessity for the comprehensive crash — or “release” — discussed in the *Wheel of Life.
In the case of our landfill, “release” would be the inevitable failure of the liner, and the effects on the ecology of the Penobscot River basin.
In fact, as discussed in that entry, within the bounds of the small scale, cycles of release and renewal can take place without being lethal to the system as a whole; they confer long life on a large — but subdivided (*modular) — natural or cultural community. Nature goes through these subcycles all the time. If they are allowed to happen, they can prevent the need for a large-scale crash, making the ecology as a whole more *resilient.
Small-scale sorting, by preventing bulk chaos, can sustain a living ecology. The enabling condition is that the system should give it a chance.
And *resilience is where I wanted to end up. LL’s entry on resilience (pp 397-408) is quite the essay and includes a illustrations, sidebars, and tables, so I’ll just excerpt some bits to give you the flavor. First, the very last paragraph:
In a sense, a complex system is permanently on the edge of collapse. It uses its taut complexity, and the capability it provides, to keep its nemesis at bay. When it can no longer do so, it reaches the tipping point which willl take it back to a much less complex order. A slack, modular system lives much closer to the edge.
(Fleming’s “taut complexity” may reminds readers of Yves’s idea of tightly coupled systems, especially financial systems. And since the whole thrust of policy by the entire political class was devoted to preserving the “complex order” of the financial sector, we can expect nemesis, in the form of collapse, to appear again.) More on the contrast between complex and taut vs. slack and modular:
So far, we have established that a modular system actually depends on having complex parts. So the independence (weak connectedness) within a modular system and the interdepence (strong connectedness) within a complex system depend on each other. The parts within a complex system are so strongly connected that they have almost no freedom–your heart and your liver must carry out instructions coming from some combination of brain, nervous system, and local chemistry. But this internal interdependence confers a high degree of freedom and capability on the complex system (in this case, you) acting as a whole.
It can apply this freedom of action within the space allowed by the modular system to which is belongs (in this case, your *community). In other words, a complex system like you can only make use of its powers of *intelligence and foresight — its ingenious response and avoidance — if it is part of a modular system which gives it the *freedom to do so.
So just as complexity and modularity are mutually dependent, so are strong connectedness (taut) and weak connectedness (slack). The taut brillliance of a complex system is only revealed and able to express itself because it lives in the context of a slack system. The complex system makes choices; the slack system enables choices to be made. And htis allows the slack, modular system to benefit from the resilience of its parts.
The financial system would, I suppose, be a complex system. It would therefore be embedded in a slack system — I suppose the planet. We had better hope, then, that the planet has plenty of slack….
So that is the end of my serendipitous wandering through Lean Logic; I hope it gives readers a good sense of the book (which indeed I have placed on top of my toilet tank). It occurs to me that I did not define “Lean,” that there is no entry for “Lean” in the book, and that there’s no entry for “Lean” as such in the Index. So what is “Lean”? From the entry for Lean Thinking (pp 284-289):
[Lean thinking is] a frame of reference for enabling people to join together in a shared aim.
“Lean” in this sense was originally derived from industrial *team production in the post-war period, and the concept is widely applied in industry… LL applies this frame of reference in the shared aim of rebuilding a *political economy in place of the failing “market.”
The essence is this. Two ways of making something happen can be compared. One of them–top down management–is to tell people what to do…. The other way is to set people up with the necessary resources: the *skills and equipment, a *common purpose, and the *freedom to appy their *judgment.
This is regime change–from disjointed regulation to freedom to think, from command-and-control to concentration on the matter at hand. And, in lean thinking, such a break is called kaikaku; whereas incremental improvement is kaizen. The switch into lean thinking itself is almost always a radical break, prompted by crisis and reluctantly done. Whether further radical breaks, or creative destruction, are needed after that switch has been made is a more complex matter.
The relevance to the 2016 election seems clear: Clinton is the candidate of kaizen; the entire political class supports her in this. Kaikaku, or what we might also call nemesis, has yet to break through at the national level, which Fleming would call a case of preventive resilience (suitable for complex systems) versus recovery-elastic resilience (suitable for slack systems).