Unlike natural ecosystems, the constructed human ecosystem is one with the ability of proactive planning.
This, one of my favourite remarks, should be a defining, almost virtuous, quality of our species, instilled in each of us from a young age: whereas the natural world is a brutal place that persists only through cut-throat genetic competition for niche exploitation, ours is far more organised, empathetic, altruistic and, not unlike the master chess player, planned not for now, but for a number of moves ahead – for the long term. For all the big-noting and glorious photographs of successful industry and political leaders spread throughout our media, there should be some sign that we have actually acquired some sense of reasonable projection for long term stability and prosperity.
Whilst revising Innovation is Key, I was reminded of an argument I inadvertently started around a year ago with some pro-nuclear fans by simply uttering the word “efficiency”. I know that I have since complained about this interaction, but largely avoided giving efficiency the proper discussion that it requires. So, here we go.
It is true, as is often discussed in the science literature on energy and production, that where efficiency is made to processes, rather than making savings, we tend to increase production to take up those saved resources. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that efficiency does nothing to preserve resources.
Why then should I kick up such a fuss?
I have no hesitation in suggesting that such an argument (which, in all honesty, is based on a wealth of evidence) is flimsy and unashamed defeatism.
Many organisms, when separated from pressures, such as predation and hostile environmental factors, will exploit as much resources as possible and demonstrate invasive qualities. Population numbers will explode and within a few generations, collapse again when the resource supply crashes. Think of a mice plague that overruns a farm.
The moment of prosperity is short lived, only to become the resources for the next level of organisms (in this case, the decomposers).
What generally stops this from occurring in the natural world is a complex community of organisms who collectively restrict each other from the available resources. It is a mindless competition which achieves sustainability through high mortality and a personal struggle for persistence.
The natural world is a reactive place and for the most part, ugly in its disregard for life in the eyes of a species with higher cognitive awareness.
Where increased efficiency does little more than increase productive output, rather than improve resource management, we have yet another example of reactive behaviour. It demonstrates yet another example of invasiveness.
In our case, productive output stimulates the current economic model / GDP and so of course it makes sense to increase production where possible. Simply, we’re allowing our ideas of “wealth” undermine resource supply for the long term and fall incredibly short of the proactive qualities capable of the human ecosystem.
Western economies largely act like a spoilt adolescent handed a large inheritance who simply wishes to spend it as quickly as possible. Natural resources are an incredible nest egg which, if invested appropriately, will pay us back healthily. Spending up what we have is a short term delusion of grandeur.
Efficiency therefore is one of the most important aspects of achieving the proactive quality that our species is capable of, however has so far been cheapened to support gluttony and greed. To scoff at those who talk of efficiency is to act like the spoilt child with “more dollars than sense”.
Take, for example, the resource of land-space. Our ability to move more “efficiently” over landscapes has fostered sprawling suburbia, largely over the most suitable local agricultural land, and an increasing dependence on personal transport (not to mention the reduction in personal health and fitness that follows). In turn we have also reduced the resources of local biodiversity (persistence and connectivity), water retention / treatment, access to agricultural land and storm surge protection on the back of “efficient” travel improvements.
The same could be said about numerous other resources, such as; the fishing industry; water use; forestry; consumables; fossil fuels; the human workforce (ie. we want more jobs, while industry effectively works to reduce workforce requirements); etc.. Efficiency is applied entirely for the wrong reasons.
In this way, I am more sceptical of the use of nuclear energy, not because of the concerns of waste and threat of meltdowns – but the mentality of those who support its use; they clearly represent a new wave of inefficient business-as-usual advocates.
To act proactively, to plan on empathic, altruistic and long term prosperity, as I opened with – indeed finer humanistic qualities – is something greater than severe individualism and short term gluttony. It requires the wealth of understanding we have (and are evermore acquiring) on resource availability and regeneration rates. It requires concise and open discussion on how we can not only preserve our resource nest egg, but invest in it to improve our returns. It requires that we utilise our resource of higher faculties to plan beyond the here and now so as natural resources persist into the far off future.
All of this will lead to the realisation that we in fact need restrictions, just as any species does (usually the brutality of nature – something I hope we can avoid), or else risk them being imposed on us (ie. resource depletion).
Once we have these long term restrictions then efficiency becomes virtuous. We will learn how to apply the human ecosystem within the global resource limitations framework and then proactively design our environments for the best possible results for all.
If our investment in resources (eg. reforestation, fish restocking, water management, cyclic process pathways, etc) provides rewards, then and only then could we start to ask whether or not we can increase our resource exploitation – no longer doing so on the back of improved extraction techniques or increased demand.
Efficiency has long been devalued and to some degree demonised in many of the discussions regarding energy and production. It simply doesn’t deserve the bad reputation it now wears. It is the true mother of innovation and a powerful tool in securing long term prosperity. We require the investments in efficiency if we are to obtain the best possible standard of living for all.