Lean Household

A small group that lives in one place—and “one place” is defined here by the presence of a single (main) kitchen. The group size will vary between a single person and an extended household of as many as twelve, at least some of whom are likely to be related by blood or marriage. Households in the Lean Economy are likely to be larger than at present because, in the absence of reliable supplies of food, goods and services of all kinds, the task of keeping a household fed, clothed and warm will need to be shared among several people.


Household production

In economics, “household production” refers to the things that consumers must do with the goods and services they buy in order to derive the “utility” they are after—that is, to fulfil their intentions. Having bought the book you want, you then have to go to the trouble of opening it, and applying your reading skills . . .

In lean economics, household production is about a profound shift of emphasis in production from the factory and office, back to the household (the New Domestication). It is easy to overlook, but there was formerly a deep, civilisation-building tradition of the home being the place of work. It did not survive the early days of the industrial market economy, and remembrances of how wonderful it was were no doubt romantically coloured, but there was also substance in it, and real regret about its passing. Here, for instance, is the early nineteenth century historian, Andrew Ure’s, view of it:

Their dwellings and small gardens [were] clean and neat—all the family well clad—the men each with a watch in his pocket, and the women dressed to their own fancy—the church crowded to excess every Sunday—every house well furnished with a clock in elegant mahogany or fancy case—handsome tea services in Staffordshire ware. The workshop of the weaver was a rural cottage, from which when he was tired of sedentary labour he could sally forth into his little garden, and with the spade or the hoe tend its culinary productions. The cotton wool which was to form his weft was picked clean by the fingers of his younger children and was carded and spun by the older girls assisted by his wife, and the yarn was woven by himself assisted by his sons.L135

Life was harder than that, really, but homeworking was defended, with passion:

We all know but too well from the incessant clamours of handloom weavers, that there are many industrious men who, during a series of years, have carried on a domestic manufacture in small rooms, crowded by looms and weaving apparatus, breathing air loaded with dust, their hours of labour extending into the night, payment for such weaving very moderate—preferring all these inconveniences to factory labour, because they cannot endure stated hours and the regular behaviour indispensable in every factory.L136

In the competition between the factory and the household, the factories easily won, and households were accordingly reshaped and relocated to conform to the needs of industry, forcing a rethink of what households were for. As industry captured and concentrated more and more of what had formerly been household production, the household economy responded by simplifying itself, shedding skills and cutting back on cooperative relationships between neighbours and within the extended family. While the workload for many individuals increased dramatically, the household itself became less of a working institution: household production declined. The role of the private, biologically-related family was simplified: it was to consume. Most of the production could be done elsewhere, and households, finding less and less use for their own labour at home, had no option but to sell it, working for their living outside the home.L137

Faced with this loss of significance—vis-à-vis the overwhelming dominance of industry—two responses were open for households: one was to accept the fact of large-scale industry, and to look for ways of improving it, humanising it, reforming it, taking a greater part in it, or even taking it over in some way. The other was to try to disassemble it, to decentralise it back as far as possible to the household. The first of those solutions was pursued with some success; the second, the decentralist tradition, has remained much the weaker of the two, but it may prove in the end to have more staying power. Its early advocates—during the roughly four decades from 1770 when it was making the news, reaching its climax in the Luddism of 1811–1813—were militant, hammer-wielding defenders of domestic production; of the integration of home and craft. It had seemed a permanent feature of life, with its handlooms, its domestic workshops, its high-quality craftsmanship, its cottage gardens and common land, and a tolerably effective negotiating position for independent traders. The troubles of this rock solid institution were surely a temporary aberration . . . ?L138

But the loss of independence came from many directions, and settled in: the key change was the machinery, driven by water and steam, with eye-watering productivity advances which could be of the order of 20:1. And the one man remaining (where twenty were needed before) was required to move to town, to accept factory discipline and breathe the smoke, and to leave the other nineteen with no evident solutions at all. Added to that was the absolute penury of being thrown out of work during the combination of a collapse of trade due to twenty years of war with France, freak cold weather and failed harvests, the loss of land due to enclosures and—as a casualty of this moral earthquake—the break-up of custom, neighbourliness, reciprocities, households and community.L139

So they took to the hammer. The hammer was called the “Enoch” after the firm of blacksmiths that made it; the movement was called “Luddism” after Ned Ludd, a village simpleton living in Leicestershire, who one day lost his cool with some boys who were teasing him, chased them into a cottage where, unable to find them, he vented his anger on a couple of knitting frames. The method of protest—physically breaking machines—was crude, but it is hard to see what alternative was available to them, and the intention was understandable. It was not just, as the silk workers of Derby put it, that they conceived themselves “entitled to a higher station in society” than was available to them in large, autocratically-managed workshops. Their needs were more fundamental than that: they needed to cope with the end of a millennium of community, which had been self-reliant not just in material and cultural needs but in the confidence that, when trouble came, they could deal with it themselves. This was trouble, however, of a new order: it gutted them of whatever capability they had.L140

The Luddites were defeated in 1812, but the ideas quietly lived on through the nineteenth and twentieth century with thinkers like Max Weber and Lewis Mumford, and especially in the political philosophy of anarchism. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), for instance, advocated small-scale production and (despite his famous phrase, “property is theft”) property-ownership for such producers. Then came Peter Kropotkin.

Kropotkin (1842–1921) had the advantage that by the end of the nineteenth century, the massive concentration of industry in giant workshops—by now seething with labour, as had been inevitable in the early days—was starting to scale down a little; and there began to be some freedom of choice in the matter of location, thanks to technical advance and the use of electricity. “The leviathan factories offer great inconveniences”, he wrote; and it follows that “the scattering of industries over the country is surely the next step to be made”. Why? His answer to that looked forward to a development that was not to become a serious option for over a century: it would be “imposed by the very necessity of producing for the producers themselvesL141—that is, local production for local consumption. Patrick Geddes, a committed supporter of this principle, called it the neotechnic model of industry. It is an idea which was on hold for as long as the market economy was in robust health, but its time has come.L142

The logic of the argument that households should try to get back some of the production faculties that they have lost leads naturally from the factory floor to the domestic kitchen. This historic step was made, famously, by Mrs. Borsodi, whose husband, Ralph, a professor of economics at the University of New York in the 1930s, came home one evening after a hard day in the lecture room to find the kitchen table covered with shining glass jars filled with tomatoes and tomato juice. In reply to his searching questions, Mrs. Borsodi assured him that home-bottled tomatoes were cheaper than bought ones; he checked her intuition with his calculations, which indeed revealed that the produce of one’s own garden has a cost-advantage, in that it does not have to be carried long distances by road and rail to one’s own kitchen.L143

Ralph was so taken with this result of his researches that he spent the rest of his life writing a series of scholarly books telling the world how much money it was wasting on distribution and transport between factories, their customers and their suppliers. He developed his Law: “Distribution costs will tend to move in inverse proportion to production costs”L144—i.e., the savings that can be made with mass production are offset by the costs of distributing the goods over long distances. And so the introduction of the electric motor backed by the electricity grid meant that local production at home became a realistic and cost-effective option. When these revisions in costs are taken into account, he concluded, it turns out to be cheaper to produce goods locally than in the centralised system that was standard for nineteenth century industry. His findings gave a central place to the household as a production centre:

I discovered that more than two thirds of the things which the average family now buys could be produced more economically at home than they could be bought factory made—that the home itself was still capable of being made into a productive unit and creative institution and that an investment in a homestead equipped with efficient domestic machinery would yield larger returns per dollar than investments in insurances, in mortgages, in stocks and bonds.L145

To some extent, it was already happening. The period 1850–1950 can be seen as the century of the homemaker, in which (mainly) married women—the “industrious consumer”—took the opportunity offered by cheap and abundant consumer goods (soap, for instance) to bring their homes up to a standard of cleanness and comfort which had never before been known on a large scale. But this, too, came to an end in the 1950s, when women were able to delegate at lot of that work to the new domestic equipment such as central heating, freezers and washing machines, and so joined the workplace. So much for Mrs. Borsodi’s bottled tomatoes.L146

Most households now fall silent on weekdays, and it will be a long haul back. Even the planning laws are against it—shaped by assumptions and objectives which are the inverse of the new domestication: home and work are kept separate. Until the 1950s, there was a degree of flexibility about this. In 1943, the County of London Plan recognised that

There is much that is popular and convenient about this mixture of work-places and houses, where indeed, in many cases the factories are actually in the houses themselves.L147

At the same time, practical advice was given by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries on the rearing and slaughtering of that intensely efficient means of domestic production, the pig, citing with approval the method recommended by Cato the Censor in 200 BC.L148

That flexible self-reliance ended abruptly. But now we can again recognise the need for households to have the skills and resources necessary for their own maintenance. Those skills are short, the tradition is all but broken, and we do not know how much of the technology available to the Borsodis—a reliable electricity grid, for instance—will be available after the climacteric. But the future lies with the household. It takes a great deal of energy and heavy equipment to keep a centralised industry at work. Whether we find ourselves with an impressive, energy-efficient, small-scale, neotechnic, locality-literate technology far in advance of 1930s America, or with the deep trauma of energy and infrastructure breakdown, it will be households that are best placed to keep things going.


Household life

Apart from being a producer, the household has a deeper meaning as a life-giving cooperative institution that makes people, feeds them, teaches language, practical skills, culture, emotional intelligence and sociability. Some make their own beer (no doubt to protect their virtue: see sidebar). Some cultivate a sense of humour and philosophy. They sustain conversation, working out a route to good judgment.

The case for home-brewing

Writing in 1821, the rural philosopher William Cobbett raged against the decline in home brewing. He looks back to “forty years ago, [when] to have a house and not to brew was a rare thing indeed. . . . There was not a labourer in his parish that did not brew his own beer”. As households stopped brewing their own beer, so the consumption of beer fell and, to Cobbett’s dismay, they started drinking tea instead:

It must be evident to every one, that the practice of tea drinking must render the frame feeble and unfit to encounter hard labour or severe weather, while . . . it deducts from the means of replenishing the belly and covering the back. Hence succeeds a softness, an effeminacy, a seeking for the fire-side, a lurking in the bed, and, in short, all the characteristics of idleness. . . . The tea drinking fills the public-house, makes the frequenting of it habitual, corrupts boys as soon as they are able to move from home, and does little less for the girls, to whom the gossip of the tea-table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel.

~ William Cobbett, Cottage Economy, 1821.L149

Given a chance, households live naturally by the proximity principle. Proximity, a central condition of lean consumption, means the art of organising things so that they start off in the right place—so that the people, jobs, products and recreations of everyday life are near at hand. Benefiting from the small scale, the lean household will be elegant and uncluttered; it will solve its sorting problem. Everything it uses will be reused or recycled and the waste reused in a closed-loop system. That does not necessarily mean that it will consume less, but its regrettable necessities will be reduced: a much higher proportion of its consumption will consist of goods and services which people actually want, rather than those which they are obliged to use (cars, packaging, accountants) as a consequence of the massive scale of the political economy they live in.

And households will have craftsmanship—giving them a power of repair and renewal that they share with other ecosystems, and which is among the most encouraging and powerful ideas in ecology. In fact, as Fritjof Capra explains, organisms are primarily engaged in renewal.

Every living organism continually renews itself, tissues and organs are replacing their cells in continual cycles. Our pancreas replaces most of its cells every twenty-four hours, our stomach lining every three days; ninety-eight percent of our brain is turned over in less than one month. Our skin replaces its cells at the rate of 100,000 cells per minute.L150

Yet such renewal (of living systems) and repair (of household goods, clothes and equipment) takes time. This is recognised by H.J. Massingham, observer of the crafts and manual literacy of English rural life. Speed, he writes,

. . . is the deadly foe of thoroughness. . . . The judgment of the earth is plain. It will have craftsmanship or nothing.L151

This is also recognised by the growing Slow Food movement. Its Manifesto declares that “a firm defence of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life”, and proposes instead, “many suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment”.L152 Here is lean thinking’s “flow”, made edible.

And the capacity of the landscape for renewal, its permanence, and its affinity with slowness, were celebrated by John Stewart Collis, a chronicler of farming in the war years immediately before it speeded into the era of industrial farming:

Beyond that hedge the winter wheat was shining now, so far, so green against the dark leafless trees and the pale blue winter sky. . . . Here is the thing that remains constant. Here is the order that does not break.L153

As we now know, the order broke almost as soon as he put down his pen. It was displaced by a culture of production and consumption committed to saving time. But with the end of the market, things will slow down again. Slow means quick if you waste less time making mistakes. The lean household’s critical asset will be elegant competence.


Related entries:

Home, Presence, Reciprocity and Cooperation, Invisible Goods, Household Group, Small Group

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

2 Responses to “Lean Household

  • I very much feel I am living through this entry, thanks to COVID-19, my household is beginning to resemble a lean household for the first time. Both my wife and daughter have joined me at home on a week day, which is a rare thing outside the reality of an entire nation in lockdown. I still have to contend with career busywork, but without the need to commute, and having time and flexability to prepare our evening meal between teleconferences and e-mails, I have finally had enough energy this evening to read a book on setting up a worm composting system in a bid to close that nutrient loop. Of course, we still have some way to go before I am producing a significant amount of calories at home, but it’s happening, slowly but surely here. (Be kind, this is my first comment on Lean Logic Online!) 🙂

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