Our love and affection for the earth helps make us creative problem solvers,
... but something is making us dodge big ones too.
We've let the conversation become conspicuously quiet on some of our greatest problems. This is about one, how using efficiency to reduce environmental impacts is being used to for growth that adds to them instead, measurably worsening our conflict with nature.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged us to not be bystanders in our own lives, saying:
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
Because we don't understand it, efficiency is being used for increasing productivity and pushing growth, but at the limits of the earth that is adding to the conflicts between people and nature instead of relieving them. Trusting the wrong solution also blinds us to the great moral and practical problem of what else to do, finding how to end our need for growth.
Efficiency is being
used for sustaining growth, not the earth,
Trusting it to reduce our impacts also keeps us from facing the great moral and practical problem, of
...how to end the need for growth.
The curves at the left demonstrate the oddly ignored 150 year old observation of Stanley Jevons, that improving efficiency results in accelerating resource use. He first noticed it in how improving efficiency for steam engines used up coal faster. The problem is we mostly use efficiencies to simplify our tasks and so make resource use more profitable, to become more affluent. The "secret" of how it works is that the particular efficiencies we choose to invest in are the very ones that for a small cost have the effect of simplifying a whole system of parts, often with improved technology. That causes an increased productivity of the whole greater than the decreased needs of the more efficient part. That's called growth, the redesign of production systems so they can use and consume more.
To achieve the opposite effect and be responsive to our strains on the environment we'd need to bring growth to an end, rather than accelerate it with more efficiency... We've let ourselves be misled, in part, and stumbled into a natural misunderstanding much like early doctors who applied leaches to remove a patient's "bad blood". By believing that sort of myth for too long we're now slipping into grave danger of creating development we'll be unable to either maintain or replace, instead of "winning the war with nature", causing a physical system bankruptcy of a lasting kind.
The love and affection people feel for the earth, and all their devotion to the task of doing things right, is being disserved by what seems to be deeply uncritical thinking. One can also see it as a natural handicap to overcome, how our minds misuse knowledge so very easily. We only understand things by constructing our own story about them, and treat that as reality. We can't help it, and construct our stories using the myths of our own culture. Myths sometimes grow and spread like rumors with no foundation at all, and sometimes stop meaning the same things when the world itself changes. A great many of our cultural myths no longer mean what they once did, since we began to collide with successive limits of the earth ~100 years ago. Expanding opportunity carries with it increasing conflict, is one of them, and our culture is founded on the idea of ever expanding opportunity.
It takes being highly objective to distinguish between realities of nature and the stories we make up for ourselves, though. Seeing the above curves shows you something nature is evidently making sense of somehow, her way, that conflicts with our ideas. What we don't understand is a rather good pointer to physical reality, since we evidently didn't make it up, and nearly all our own understandings are actually stories we made up to fit our own cultural myths. If it's important, how nature makes sense of things that we can't, is what we need to stretch our minds to fit around.
It's how our economy naturally works that makes using efficiency for reducing resource impacts have the opposite effect. It's been called Jevons' "paradox" because we don't see how the whole system becomes more productive by reducing the costs of strategic individual parts. It's been fairly widely discussed though. People have just acted as if inhibited in thinking about it, and not taken it to heart, not even to refine their thinking about how to save the planet from our accelerating overconsumption.... Even scientists mostly ignore how the real effect on the economy completely contradicts most recommendations for what to do. So the whole issue, staring us in the face, is being quite ignored by educators, activists, the media and government and seems not to be a focus of any large scale effort in organizing, planning or research. We seem to not have started raising the deep moral and practical problem, that our economy responds to increasing efficiency by digging our society into an ever deeper hole to climb out of. Partly it's our belief in productivity as a way to solve problems, when our problem now has become being too productive in using the earth.
It's also a remarkable story about our cultures of knowledge, and how people frequently develop disconnected stories for what they think are disconnected issues, unaware of connections in the physical world. It happens partly because it's easy to think by snap judgments, and to create cultural realities by popular social agreement. For how to achieve sustainability it seems much of the social networks act as if the earth will respond to our love and affection alone, treating social group cohesion as trumping critical thinking and closely observing environmental responses. Somehow even modern economists don't seem to mention that efficiency has always been understood as a primary growth stimulus, and that it would fail entirely as a strategy for reducing "externalities" like the use of primary resources for growth. In part that's because economists treat quantitative physical measures (rigidly constrained by the conservation of energy), as limitlessly adjustable qualitative measures of value, so their recommendations are adjustable too. Numerous other professional and popular views interpret the quantitative physical world with their own separate cultural value system too, almost as if treating the physical world as not even existing. Someone needs to research the full story of these resulting confusions. It's both important intellectual history and critical for getting to the bottom of why we let our main solution for relieving our impacts on the earth be a direct multiplier of the very problem we intended to solve.
Sustainability does need efficiency, just not for sustaining our system of ever growing resource use. It sadly does mean that the central tenet of sustainability has the opposite of the intended effect on our environment. The recent history of how the mistake in thinking spread seems to start in the language used for sustainability plans, limiting the cost of resource conservation to what is affordable while meeting growth targets. The CAFE mileage standards are a good one there, and the energy codes. People interested should check and see how it is phrased, carefully reading the introductions to plans for conserving resources, ending climate change or making the transition to renewable resources or limiting population, etc. They're virtually all predicated on sustaining growth and expanding the limits of development. Look for the phrasing promising that improved efficiency will continue to promote growing prosperity. Then look at the curves, above. Then look at your world. Then go back and look at the text, and at the curves again. Then ask if we should continue accelerating the problem.
The modern source of the confusion appears to have been the Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability. It seems to have been set up for the technical interpretations that followed, using a twisted meaning for the word "decoupling" to describe how to make more money and save the earth at the same time. It dramatically altered the definition of sustainability, changing it from being a statement of absolutes to a qualitative measure meaning the opposite. It became a promise of "best effort" relative to maintaining acceptable rates of real growth. It appears the OECD in its role of defining world economic policy was just "doing its job". Technically, sustainability is now defined as money growing faster than the apparent costs of impacts. If you don't see how that completely devoids the original intent and meaning of sustainability, go back and read the last sentence carefully, and think. It assures that all kinds of impacts needed for growth will keep increasing ever faster, even if intended to be at marginally slower rates of increase than the money someone is making from them. The only way to stop adding to our impacts is to stop adding to them, of course, in quantitative not qualitative terms. Slowing a rate of acceleration is NOT deceleration. Really!
What has to change is how investors see
the purpose of their role in choosing how to change the parts of our
economic system. It is investors who choose what to physically
turn our world into, by what additions and replacement parts for the
system they choose to invest in. They need to accept their
natural fiduciary responsibility to preserve the system they are hoping
to profit from. That's the environmental commons with no
owner we all share. Their obligation is to make choices that
steer the economy toward reducing its physical burden on the earth, and
away from our otherwise approaching threshold of exhaustion.
We're a long way down the road to the latter as the now dramatic
explosion of diverse global and interdependent environmental, financial
and social crises clearly demonstrates. Investors need to
actually use their profits from investments to actively prevent the
continued undermining of our whole investment in the earth.
We're a long way from understanding what physically sustainable
investment is, though. It starts with the rudiments of
how to use
money as a quantitative physical measure of impacts, then
needs us to understanding how to copy sustainability techniques from
natural system economies and address the
related difficult financial issues.
We need to see our moment in history as one of our society changing form, as organisms are often seen doing to reach their next phase of development at the end of the preceding one. How so many other complex societies before ours have failed to progress that way is ample demonstration of the hazard. If we don't address the real challenges before us, but just keep making growth more efficient till our options for change are exhausted, our complex society will more or less abruptly vanish at some not distant point in time, as relatively small failures of parts cascade to become the ultimate end of the whole, as happened for the others.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Martin Luther King Jr.
Those able to see these errors need to be employed in helping guide the change. We need to fix this, and other fatal errors still part of our thinking. ( please help )
Everyone seemed pleased with my presentation on "Why Efficiency Multiplies Consumption" at the BioPhysical Economics 09 meeting in Syracuse on 10/17/09. The slides and lecture notes are at EffMultiplies.htm. The long paper on the how cultural wisdoms get misled and how to use the what nature does simply to connect our disconnected languages is The curious case of Stimulus as Constraint. Other general discussion: Why our work ethic has become an endless steeper climb What in the world is really going on here?, What we need to understand to change it Peak Zucchini ! .. and earlier but good short articles tie Inside Efficiency to How We get out of here?
Lists of other top systems theory issues and sustainability issues