Efficiency is Truly Virtuous: Planning Prosperity

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.

[Article also published at The Sustainable Cities Collective]

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6 thoughts on “Efficiency is Truly Virtuous: Planning Prosperity

  1. Very interesting article!

    I often wonder at our current society’s inability to look farther than the metaphorical ends of our noses.

    As adelady suggests, the word is ‘clever’. And the problem is we’re not half as clever as we like to think we are.

    We’re great at building tools; not so good at choosing when – or even whether – to use them.

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    1. I have to agree. The industrial revolution as been a wonderful period of accelerated innovation and development and like any species when freed from persistent restrictions, we expanded – and continue to do so.

      We’ve hit a crux period. It’s a cross road point which we must make some very difficult decisions. Up until now, we’ve blindly gone with all this progress with a certain confidence that could be summed up in the line my sister once said to me more than a decade ago as a stubborn youth; “I won’t wear sunscreen because, by the time I develop skin cancer, there will be a cure.”

      Indeed much of the denial backlash that has any iota of intelligence is that which relies on an arrogant assumption that we’re now so fundamentally clever that we can solve any problem before it becomes significant. [note: I only suggest is has some intelligence because it’s willing to admit to the scientific basis of AGW]

      Unfortunately (and this is partly why I’ve changed the name of this blog to ‘New Anthropocece’), we’ve become a force of nature and this force is intertwined with so many social inertias that it’s a blind juggernaut, as Graham has recently summed up, potentially leading us both to a social and environmental collapse that is terrifying to contemplate.

      And we’re locked into much of the issues behind this process.

      Take, for instance, my city, Adelaide; the worst Aust capital city to low density sprawl and rubbish housing design. If we tried to reduce energy use, both this winter and summer would take their toll on the young and the old (largely in poor housing design). We’re locked into high climate control energy use or an expensive retrofit. Also much of the close productive land is now under housing estates, so we’re locked into importing most of the food requirements or an expensive relocation of people and contaminated soil work.

      Likewise, without a huge educational effort and transfer of other wealth from the developed to the developing nations (increasing global equality and local resource security) we’re locked into a much more populated world.

      It’s already showing the early signs of buckling (biodiversity loss is arguably showing advanced stages of buckling).

      We simply cannot maintain the illusion that we will solve the problems before they get too big, because they already are and hold enough inertia that we are committed to them becoming much bigger before change sets in.

      I’m not for a second suggesting a retraction to the world of yesteryear, but rather a radically new and far more advanced global community. It must start with us getting real about the problems and our behaviour.

      Sure, our tech is great, but still we act like an invasive species. If we are to free ourselves from outside restrictions, we must maintain our own limitations for the sake of prosperity and sustainability. With such restrictions genuine efficiency make sense.

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  2. “I won’t wear sunscreen because, by the time I develop skin cancer, there will be a cure.” — sums it up nicely.

    … arrogant assumption that we’re now so fundamentally clever that we can solve any problem — that’s one lot of ‘inactivists’ playing the arrogance card: another lot plays the same card by claiming that humanity cannot possibly have any effect upon the global atmosphere (as it’s simply too big). Both attempt to adopt the high ground, but from where I sit both are badly deluded.

    Meanwhile, there are those who, as you say, dismiss action because it so clearly (to their minds) means either a reversion to some kind of pre-industrial utopian fantasy, or involves all of us living on islands raising sheep.

    No wonder it’s hard to make any meaningful progress, surrounded by all this babble.

    I’m with you: a radically new and far more advanced global community sounds, well, rather exciting to me. If we could only all pull together toward it, it might happen. Normally I’d append ‘one day’ as a rider to that, but we’re quickly running out of time — it’s either now, or never. And currently favouring ‘never’.

    If I weren’t an atheist, I’d hear the echoes of the Tower of Babel and wonder whether that were a prediction, rather than a history.

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    1. Sorry, the italics have leaked as I missed out a closing </i>. (I blame the machine; it shouldn’t be possible to make such an elementary error — so much for ‘progress’.)

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    2. One slight positive (although I’ll admit it may be somewhat the result of optimism on my part); I believe that the actual denial crowd is smaller than it pretends to be – the vast majority of people are either (or both) confused and/or disinterested after years of the propaganda machine of AGW denial.

      Providing prospective and positive examples will help direct meaningful adaption. I had, for a short time, a hand in “eco-mapping” – such innovations lead to a reduction of cost also so further incentive.

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