When taking the load off you; multiplies it on others… what to do

Efficiency & productivity relieve strain on you, multiply it for the earth. At the limits of the earth they multiply it on others.

on 8/17 Mark had replied: “It never really occurred to me that reducing the dependency of one thing tends to lead to growth in another area, increasing total impact.  The same holding true for businesses.  It occurred to me that over the years I have been a part of companies the expectation was that as my work efficiency increased so did productivity.  [But that adds up to doing] More work at half the time. I am interested in hearing your thoughts on how to know where the end of these circular effects are and, if possible, to be successful economically without having negative impacts.

You seem to get the exact point, and the new moral dilemma that a whole systems view exposes. If we each increase our productivity, it takes US less resources to increase our use of OTHER resources. So it looks like we’ve been understanding the effect of our having to do less to get more from our environment backwards, as if the effect on us was the same as the effect on our world.

How you’d get the two things we like, the earth and productivity, to be on same side of the ledger is the question. It would be in a non-growing economy where the more productive you became the less work you did. That’s definitely not going to happen any time soon, is another part of the moral problem. Most of our social relations are organized around being competitive, and most business profits are used to multiply investments, and reversing that is not even under discussion anywhere.

The ideal would be to have all the parts of an economy reach their peak productivity at once, before pressing the resource limits of their environment. That would be like the way an organism develops to maturity, with all its cells at the peak of their vitality and a long stable life ahead. Our growth economy is build to create ever growing imbalances between the parts and with their environment, to reach a climax at some peak of exhaustion instead… That points to other new moral dilemmas, and a real approaching danger. It seems nature is telling us we need to change plans.

In any planning process if you see a necessity for a change approaching you do two things. One is to start thinking about what would need to change and how to do it. The other is to start looking for the right time to do it. I like to use the analogy of paddling a canoe, skiing, or driving a race car. When you see a turn coming you mentally prepare a move to make and then wait for the earliest opportunity to do it smoothly. So what that does is to both make it fun and upstage nature’s alternate solution for approaching instability, having you capsize or crash.

I think we may be a little late to make a deft steering response, since our whole culture is organized around choices to multiply wealth separated from making choices about our real future. So, I can’t say where the end of that “circular effect” is… If history is a guide, there’s a very long history of this being a problem for us. We might well continue to push the limits of things to where they crash, over and over and over, and maybe never learn from it.

That’s one of the most fascinating things about the frequent great financial panics that all growth economies have exhibited from the beginning of time it seems. People clearly see how they come from pushing the limits, watching what happens as trust inevitably falls apart, and how destructive that is. We just never learn from it somehow. So the end of the that circle will be when we actually DO learn from it. It doesn’t seem impossible, but it also doesn’t seem to have happened before.

I think what would begin that is getting our measures right, for one thing, so we don’t measure our multiplying impacts on the environment as reductions… for example. Once we have measures of sustainability impacts we can truly rely on we could put teeth in them by using them to qualify investment returns for tax treatment, making positive sustainability a requirement for investors being allowed to use more of their returns as they like… Then we’d both know better how to do it, and have a lot more investment going to fundamentally sound sustainable design.


I had replied on the AIA Committee On The Environment forum 8/15 to the great error in a post “Energy Efficiency’s Great Potential”, pointing out why improving productivity has always resulted in multiplying whole economy impacts, not reductions at all.

“Energy Efficiency’s Great Potential”, and all the other plans to reduce economic impacts on the earth using efficiency improvements display how very far we have all drifted from reality on the usual effects.   Efficiency improvements generally stimulate growth and increase, not decrease, total economic impacts.   That’s what has been continually happening as everyone uses efficiency to improve their productivity.   [ed.]

The actual truth is that efficiency has always been a primary growth stimulus, and always served to multiply our impacts on the earth.    The illusion we are fooled by is that that efficiency improvement reduces impacts on the people doing the task involved, and we mistake that for reducing impacts on the earth.

Improving efficiency has always actually been the primary means by which businesses engage in everyday price competition, “have an impact” in improving their “productivity” to multiply the output of their products.    For the business and the economy it’s a primary growth stimulus.

Maybe the simplest example would be personal choices, say to reduce the amount of waste in your own food preparation in the kitchen.    The main effect is that letting you do more with less, using less raw food without diminishing your comfort.   What happens to the system around you is a)leaving more food for others, and b) saving you some money.

That is primary wealth creation, expanding the economy and creating money from nothing.   Then the question is what do others do with the extra food supply and what do you do with the money?    To keep it you your choices, you either spend that money on other consumption, or give it to the bank to “work for you”, going out into the world as investment to build more efficient technologies and stimulate appetites for their products.

Absolutely any change in any natural system is something like that, with every action having a network of opposite reactions.   What you really want to know is whether the opposite reaction is going to multiply or fade away.

I’d be glad to talk to people about how to know where the end of these kinds of circular effects is.    Some of it’s quite simple, based on how all kinds of systems begin with multiplying rebound effects.   One way or another they always upset their own environments, is the “steering principle” we haven’t been paying attention to,  and the choice between a life story of growth to collapse ¸¸¸¸.·´.¸ or growth to maturity ¸¸¸¸.·´ ¯ ¯  at the prime of the systems life.

People who don’t ask, of course, are almost sure to keep thinking that the efficiencies that multiply profits are decreasing our impacts on the earth, the exact opposite of the truth.

Phil Henshaw      ¸¸¸¸.·´ ¯ `·.¸¸¸¸


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