Why efficiency speeds up consumption – reported NY Times…

So… how do we get to the bottom of this? The basic dilemma seems to be how many ways we are using conceptual models, often build with cultural values instead of solid observations, to represent how the physical world works and are simply way off.

New School of Thought Brings Energy to ‘the Dismal Science‘” October 23, 2009 (online Business page)

The NY Times seemed to break its silence on what some call “the physical world problem” in nicely covering the BioPhysical Economics meeting I presented to last week. They included mention of my presentation on the surprising problem that our main way of slowing down resource uses has and will continue to accelerate them.

It’s bound to be confusing… that the sustainability movement misunderstood the use of efficiency to decrease our energy and economic impacts, since it naturally has and will continue to multiplying them. See the links below for my presentation.

The meeting was organized by Charles Hall and his BioPhysical economics workgroup at SUNY-ESF where the proceedings will eventually get posted. His work and workgroup are closely connected with The Oil Drum.

The main finding presented was that world oil production has been slowing due to absolute limits of supply and decreasing returns for extracting what’s left (EROI), and has reached the peak and begun to decline as the group has long predicted. The globe is meeting a natural technology limit for recovering our main energy source.

The group consensus seems to be that it would unavoidably result in repeated economic contractions in the relatively near future, affecting the less productive economies and sectors more severely. They accepted my evidence that stimulating efficiencies was making the economy use energy, and so drive the depletion process faster…, being somewhat accustomed to discovering shocking confusions in the reasoning that got us to this global point of crisis. — My talk on “Why efficiency multiplies consumption” in one page and in 23 slides w/ audio link, short text outline of presentation


The question for most people, though, is how to explain in simple moral principles (sort of like the ones so many intent on reducing our impacts misinterpreted…), but get it right this time.

One of the deeper underlying reasons for our mixing it up is that both sustainability advocates and economists seemed to use cultural models to predict global environmental effects, not checking the physical system but validating the models by their profitability. People even seemed to agree on using the same cause for opposite effects, promoting both decreasing and increasing impacts as the result, sometimes in the same sentence. Whether people agree on cultural models or not, physical systems don’t follow them.

Moral principles come from long experience with nature in complex situations, and so tend to be what we rely on guiding us through intellectual mistakes and confusions of that kind. How come no one seemed to “be suspicious” of using efficiency as the universal solution, even as it caused the opposite of most people’s intended effect??

Part of it is that people confused “the work it takes” to do things (that efficiency reduces) and “the service it provides” to those around us (that efficiency increases). Measuring improvements in efficiency and improvements in productivity you use the exact same ratio. They’re the same thing. The difference is a switch in viewpoint, looking up stream in chain of effects with “the work it takes” and downstream with “the service it provides”. We thought reducing the work it takes would reduce the work it does, but that’s not necessarily true at all. In our economy improving the service our work provides causes much more work to get done.

So…, the moral values that seem to convince everyone that efficiency results in sustainability is at least “missing something”. I think there’s a little hint of a ‘cheap-shot’ in our common belief that “all we can do is work hard and be self-sacrificing”. That’s clearly not sufficient, anyway, if it causes us to accelerate the depletion of all our resources as a way to preserving them…

So, I’ve struggled for years to find how to give moral value to what the physics says we really have to find meaning for. The physics doesn’t tell me about that, though.

Remember the basic “hunter-gatherer” strategy of “first pick the low hanging fruit”? With our sort of “mechanized hunter-gatherer” methods we’re providing services to others who don’t know any better than to pay us to pick low hanging fruit till there’s no fruit left within most anyone’s reach. That’s partly our responsibility. The solution could be to keep picking low hanging fruit, only as fast as it grows.

So.. we need something other than just hard work and self-sacrifice, what I think of as a kind of “true generosity”. We need to make sure everyone cooperates in leaving enough fruit on the tree for others to pick, i.e. take responsibility for commons, looking out for others as something of a gift to ourselves too. The cells in your body seem to do that, for example (the ones that aren’t cancers… anyway).

Does that start to explain it? I have another good attempt (only 2 pages), approaching the question from asking how you design “Economies that become part of nature“, using the same principle, but described in economic terms.

– Because I have a technique that lets me see what others are missing on how environmental systems are likely to respond to things, my approach might be of help for anyone’s strategic planning.

¸¸¸¸.•´ ¯ `•.¸¸¸¸ NY NY


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