Insidious Consequences

The sort of bad habits of thought I wrote of in last week’s post, “Less is Better,” do not just manifest themselves in dysfunction at the individual level. Unfortunately, they also manifest in dysfunction at the collective level, and it’s these sort of dysfunctional, collective habits of thought that are one of the driving forces behind a good number of very dumb national policies that have not only served to bring disruption and destruction down on millions of Americans—and many millions more global citizens—but that have also driven us into an ever more destructive and abusive relationship with the natural world to which we belong. This is a key reality that needs to be grasped if we are going to start making better decisions for ourselves and start backing away from our brain dead abuse of our one and only home. Simply put, while the very bad decisions we’ve made over the preceding decades have a myriad of backing factors, it’s our tendency to think in linear patterns rather than in whole systems that is one of the greatest factors causing us to dig our own graves.

I wrote about those linear patterns of thought last week, as well as two of the ways that they manifest in our society: via our cultural myth of progress, in which we falsely flatten out the complicated and cyclical course of human history into an ever-upward sweep of progress and betterment; and in reductionist patterns of thinking that isolate, observe, and obsess over individual variables while remaining largely ignorant of the complicated, intertwined, whole-system effects of of our decisions. As I noted, these linear ways of thinking cause us major problems at the individual level, but they also manifest problems at the collective level. For instance, the myth of progress often causes us to discount the negative effects of new forms of technology once they are widespread, rolling those technological changes and innovations into the aforementioned upward sweep of progress and locking them in place as just one more step along the inevitable path of betterment. Once they are in place, it becomes culturally unthinkable to abandon them in the face of mounting negative consequences, as that implies a tacit acknowledgement that our glorious step forward may actually have been a misstep—and further suggests that many other steps “forward” could just as well be backward movements. Such an acknowledgement places the entire myth of progress into unbearable question and are thus, as often as not, disallowed.

If you want an example of this, just gauge the reactions of most people should you advocate for some sort of technological regression, such as purposefully abandoning your smart phone in favor of a dumb phone, or even a good old-fashioned landline. Or perhaps living without the internet and instead using newspapers, hand-written letters, phone calls, libraries, printed encyclopedias and other repositories of knowledge, brick-and-mortar stores, maps, checks, physical media, magazines, and other non-digitized technologies to conduct so much of the day-to-day business that the internet has vampirized over the past twenty years. Or perhaps not owning a car; hang drying your laundry; walking or biking in bad weather even if you do have access to a car; refusing to use a credit card; mailing your bills; and so on down the very long list of activities that were common not that long ago but that have now gone out of fashion by being replaced with more complex, less resilient, and more destructive technologies. Advocate for these sort of technological regressions and the responses typically will range from confusion to hostility, with only the occasional approval or agreement mixed in. As often as not, even if you’re not advocating anyone else to do the same as you, you’ll be treated in some poor manner or another for making such personal decisions.

In addition to the way the myth of progress obscures and flattens the complex trade offs of any new technology by automatically assigning it the role of positive step forward, reductionist thinking severely limits the ways that we consider addressing those negative consequences that we actually do recognize and acknowledge. When a new technology creates a series of negative consequences that simply can’t be ignored, we almost never consider eliminating the new technology and reviving a technology that served the same purpose but with fewer negative consequences. Instead, we devise ways to layer another level of complexity onto the most recent technology in the hopes of solving the problems that technology created. The new layer of complexity (excuse me, technology) may or may not solve the problems created by the previous layer of complexity, but it’s a pretty good guarantee that even if it does, it’s going to create its own host of new problems.

This is the sort of linear thinking that makes it a mantra that to solve our problems, we must build upon the progress already made. Are there situations in which that statement can be true? Sure, but it’s more common these days that building on the progress already made is actually doubling down on a failed technology or policy and creating even greater problems as a result. This is the way that an individual or a nation continues along a specific, troubled path while ignoring the many other paths available, venturing first into the realm of diminishing returns and then into that of negative returns. Good examples of this include the way that we create new cocktails of ever more potent and poisonous herbicides to help eliminate glyphosate-resistant weeds, further destroying farmland and further encouraging the evolution of super weeds; or the way that the Affordable Care Act approaches the multitude of problems inherent in our healthcare (more accurately known as health insurance) system and attempts to solve it by adding a new layer of bureaucratic complexity in the form of federal subsidies and legal mandates to purchase health insurance from private companies. These are not solutions. They’re destructive doubling downs that refuse to honestly recognize the inherent flaws already designed into these systems, that confine themselves to the path already set upon, and that then attempt to find a solution within an artificially narrowed range of options that don’t happen to offer one. That is an approach that can only fail, and a quick glance around this country shows off those failures time and time and time again, in an endless number of ways.

Therefore, it’s time that we started taking different approaches to our problems, starting with new ways of thinking about them. Much as the linear ways of thinking inherent in our personal lives are leading us down destructive paths, so too are these ways of thinking leading us down destructive paths in our national lives. There are better ways of dealing with our predicaments, though, and they begin with systems-based approaches, honest considerations of both the pros and cons of any new technology or policy, and a willingness—an eagerness, even—to look at the many paths we did not take and consider them as actual options that may best the path currently taken.

Those are the ways of thinking about our problems and predicaments I’ll be using over the coming months as I work my way through a series of “Closed System Economics” posts in which I will be offering a number of ideas to deal with the troubled future facing us. I don’t expect my ideas to be perfect, and no doubt they will all have their own particular pros and cons. In fact, I’m going to aim to enumerate both as I propose ideas, taking an honest look at the ways in which they may help and the negative consequences they may also entail. After all, there are no perfect solutions facing us, and a good many of our predicaments are just that: problems we must live with, and whose negative aspects we can only hope to reduce, not eliminate. And yet, I believe we can indeed reduce those negative aspects and improve our future as a result—and the populist movements that have been roiling American politics of late are starting to make me believe we may actually have a political opening in which to get some of these ideas into a broad enough circulation that they may eventually be heard in the halls of power.

As I move forward in the coming months, I’ll be proposing ideas that consider not only the direct and easily observed negative consequences of particular technologies and national policies, but a host of less-recognizable negative consequences that can be just as devastating. It is, in fact, these more insidious consequences of our dominant technologies and national policies that I believe most need to be grappled with, such as:

  • Increased complexity, cost, or energy usage, which reduces the resiliency of individuals and communities
  • Diversion of resources from other opportunities due to increased complexity and cost
  • Diversion of resources from other opportunities due to an overall limit of available resources
  • The displacement of older and better technologies
  • Opportunity costs inherent in the path taken, which includes the potential benefits of the many paths not taken as a result—benefits that may outweigh the benefits of our chosen path
  • Diminishment of the utility of human labor, animal labor, and renewable energy flows
  • Diminishment or disruption of human communities or economies

These are the sort of considerations I will be bringing to bear upon my proposed responses to the predicaments of our time. As such, I will be considering ideas that are elegant in their simplicity, that reduce cost and complexity, that emphasize human labor, that cast a critical eye upon the idea of “labor saving” as an overarching good, that function within renewable flows of energy, and that build and stabilize human communities and economies.

Of course, I’m not the first person to propose utilizing such approaches. One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, also has advocated for similar such approaches and I owe a significant debt to his essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” [pdf] for the above list, which works off of a similar list of nine considerations Berry proposes for evaluating any new tool. More important than that essay, though, is Berry’s even greater one, “Solving For Pattern.” To my mind, Berry proposes the sort of whole-systems thinking in his essay that I believe is critical and indispensable in dealing with the troubles facing us—and which I also find in incredibly short supply within our current national discourse. His essay deserves a very close reading, and I will undoubtedly be referring to it in the coming months, both explicitly and implicitly. The essay is relatively short and eminently readable; I would suggest my readers take a bit of time to read over it, think through its implications, begin applying its logic to our current predicaments, and hold me accountable in the coming months to that same logic. That can only benefit us—and we could all use a good dose of benefit now, at a time in which harm is in such great supply, and so lacking in acknowledgement.

15 Comments

  1. Good post, Joel: I like the series.

    My wife (70) and I (67) have never owned or used a mobile phone of any kind, never will. We get the usual reactions, ranging from incredulity (“What if your car breaks down?” Answer: “We don’t drive a car.) to affront (Well, I guess I can’t call you then.).

    We do own a car, a 1972 VW Beetle that my wife bought used in early 1973. It’s beautiful sitting in the carport. We walk or bicycle for all our shopping (good, nutritious, vegetarian, real food), errands and recreation. We take the bus or train for long distance travel, twice a year maybe. Haven’t flown since 2005.

    We do each have a laptop computer for correspondence, research and writing in our political and environmental work. We also use hand-written letters, phone calls, libraries, printed encyclopedias and other repositories of knowledge, brick-and-mortar stores, maps, checks, physical media, magazines, and other non-digitized technologies. Also, we wash and hang out our laundry in our community laundry drying yard; walk or bike in all weather even though we have access to a car; refuse to use a credit card; mail our bills; and so on.

    People do cock the odd eyeball on occasion. Many also say, “I see you walking EVERYWHERE! That’s so great! I wish I could do that.”

    It’s not hard, it’s fulfilling and satisfying. Anyone can do it; one makes the decision and moves away from technological distractions and engages in the Life all around us.

    • Thank you, Michael. It’s great to hear your story. Sounds like you’re farther along than I am, though I do a good many of those things, too. I agree—it’s not really that hard, and when it is it’s usually simply due to fighting the currents of society, not because the actual actions themselves are hard. And yes, it’s very fulfilling and satisfying. I hope more and more people continue to make these same decisions. I appreciate you sharing—I think that’s a part of helping others see alternate possibilities.

  2. Joel, good stuff but I think you want “eminently” not “imminently” in the last paragraph…

  3. Hi Joel,

    Another fine post…I look forward to your development of this theme. Thanks especially for the link to the Wendell Berry pieces.

    I noticed a few wording glitches, noted below. Evidently, I can’t suppress the proofreader within…at least you know I’m reading carefully!

    “to look at the many paths we did not take and consider them as actual options that may best the path currently taken.” — may be better than the path currently taken?

    in the bullet section, not sure divertment is a real word…I think diversion is probably more correct.

    “As such, I will be considering ideas that are elegant in their simplicity, that reduce cost and complexity, that emphasis human labor,” — emphasize

    Your efforts are much appreciated.

    Jim

    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks! I hope that you enjoy the ways I develop the theme—I’ll be curious to see what people think, though I don’t claim I’ll be presenting entirely new ideas. I’m hoping I can present them in interesting ways, though, and many will be ideas that, even if not new, haven’t been paid proper attention.

      Thanks, as well, for the proofreading. I believe divertment is an uncommon word and perhaps used more in regards to water flows. I’ll grant you diversion seems a better option—not sure why it didn’t pop to mind originally—and I’ve changed that, as well as correcting “emphasize.” Your other suggestion I’m exercising authorial choice on; it’s written as I meant it, as in “besting” something.

  4. Joel – I’m looking forward to the series of posts. I’m sure I’ve read those Berry essays, but will reread them to refresh my memory.

    Layering on not as good technologies on older one’s that work better. Ah, yes. We have a wonderful library system up here, but every time they have to switch to a new cataloguing system, it seems to get worse. The latest iterations search function isn’t as good. Luckily, they are running the old system and the new in tandem. So, I think they realize there are problems. Also, everything on my hold list is “pending.” The old system told you when an item you wanted was “in transit.” So you knew when the item was actually on it’s way to you. Makes planning trips to town a lot easier.

    At least our library does a yearly survey, so I will be able to make my case for finding a better catalog, the next time they need to upgrade. They don’t really need to, it’s just that whoever they bought the software from is no longer supporting the old version. We’ve all heard that story.

    I think one thing we forget is that it’s all about money. Obsolescence and “new and improved” (HA!) versions keep the bucks rolling in. Lew

    PS: I finally figured out how I found my way to Morris Berman’s “Neurotic Beauty.” He’s the guy that wrote “Dark Ages America,” many years ago. He also has a blog. Day to day entries aren’t all that interesting, but some of his longer essays and “most popular posts” are pretty good.

    PPS: I’m thinking of doing a book review. Not for this upcoming issue, but for later. A combo of two books, actually. “The Knowledge” and “The Useful Book: 201 Life Skills They Used to Teach in Home Ec and Shop.” (Bowers). Back when I worked for the library, under their auspices, I did several book reviews that were printed in The Olympian newspaper.

    • Hi Lew,

      I’ve never regretted a rereading of Wendell Berry. I really do find him one of the great voices of our time, and always love his thoughtful and considerate work. That said, I’ve only ever read his essays and some of his poetry—I really do need to give some of his fiction that’s currently sitting on my bookshelf a chance!

      Interesting to hear about your library. I know I’ve used some online library search functions that seemed quite unhelpful, and was surprised at how hard it apparently was to search a large but still limited database. Perhaps it’s just that my tastes are too obscure. I don’t know—honestly, I have somewhat vague memories of the good old card catalog, which was on its way out as I was on my way into becoming a library user. It seemed to work fine.

      Ah yes, planned obsolescence. That one’s such a joy. The longer I use my laptop running Windows 10, the less it seems to work. I’m thinking of setting up a partition and playing around with a copy of Linux; perhaps it’s time to make the switch, assuming I can still conduct work via it.

      As for Neurotic Beauty, I wasn’t able to track down a copy at the library, but I did get the other book mentioned last week and it’s waiting on the hold shelf. I’ll keep an eye out for the Berman. Your recommendation did lead me to a copy of his Why America Failed, which is also sitting on the hold shelf for when I get back from the coast. I wonder if anyone else here has read that one and has any thoughts on it? I’m curious, admittedly.

      If you do those reviews, send it on. I’ve so far only been putting in reviews of fiction, but I certainly would consider some relevant nonfiction.

  5. Richard Steinberger

    October 4, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Joel – I’ve been looking for an example of any historical civilization which voluntarily took steps to enable a “controlled” collapse back to a less complex organization and/or technology level…. While there are occasional examples of utopia and “back to the land” movements in the US, these never had a major impact on the larger culture. And I cannot identify any civilization which *voluntarily* contracted (or collapsed) because it detected that was the best available response to the predicament(s) it faced.

    So I suspect that in the US (and most of the rest of the technically modern world), very few people will be interested, much less have the time/wherewithal to learn the skills to “go back” 100 – 150 years or so. In fact, for most people, even if you could convince them that a decent life were possible living a late 19th century lifestyle, how would the begin? Where would they start?

    For example, how many readers of this blog would even consider dentistry or medicine of an 1880s variety? Only if the choice is between that and medicine/dentistry from even earlier centuries does the late 19th century sound like a better choice. The point being that for the vats majority of “modern” people, “going back”, decomplexifying their lives, is rarely even an option… Could people do more if they wanted? I think we can agree that they could, but where does that desire come from? To be cynical: For most people I’ve seen, simplifying their life means buying organic food at Whole Foods, growing a tomato plant or two, and possibly installing some rooftop solar…. All very dependent on the globalized supply chain and the cheap energy that powers it…

    So while readers of this blog, and JMG’s, and Richard Heinberg’s, may be more open to personal decomplexification, options are limited… Some things are easy – I’ll walk/bike more, try to eat more local foods, insulate my house – I can’t become a blacksmith. I can’t (easily) abandon 21st century medical/dental care (nor do I want to). I don’t want to give up indoor plumbing or hot water…. We each have things we can do and things we can’t….

    The point isn’t to live at something like a zero net CO2 production level, but to keep working on using less energy and unnecessary stuff – JMG’s LESS paradigm…. And all the while knowing that some kind of collapse is pretty much inevitable… So maybe the best approach is: live as sanely and lightly as you can and be prepared for eventual contractions and collapse.

    • Hi Richard,

      You’re quite correct—I don’t think most people would willingly make the choices you outline here. Partly due to that, I’m not going to be spending much time advocating for such a scenario in the Closed System Economics post. Instead, I’m going to advocate for a series of policies the results of which would improve the standards of living of a lot of people in this country while simultaneously pushing us toward reduced energy and resource usage.

      I see a few categories of people in play here. First, you have the sort of people who visit this blog, are regulars at The Archdruid Report, and so on. These are a small minority of the population who actually take the possibilities of collapse seriously and are willing to tackle some number of steps to downsize their lives accordingly—both out of ideology and perhaps also out of sheer pleasure. Then you have a larger minority of the population who are open to certain ideas of downsizing primarily because they enjoy it. They like gardening, they like living with less in some manner or another, they enjoy walking or biking, so on and so forth. They’re not going to go too crazy, but they can be swayed by the more ideological amongst us to practice some more sustainable living skills out of sheer enthusiasm for the personal benefits.

      And then you have a much larger minority or very possibly even a majority of the population who have been so beaten down by the current economic and political structure, and have so badly lost out in the game of globalism and empire, that they are open to considering and ultimately advocating for a series of economic and political policies that redirect our efforts away from those two Faustian goals not because of ethical or moral or even long term considerations, but because a change in those policies can benefit them right now by making their lives materially better. Those are the people I want to talk to in the “Closed System Economics” series of posts.

      We’ve run so deep into diminishing and negative returns, we’ve officially entered territory in which we could improve the material well-being of millions of people in this country—very likely even increasing their use of energy and resources—while still reducing our overall use of energy and resources. It’s simply a question of how we organize are economy, what we encourage and incentivize, and what we deincentivize. That’s what I’m going to be writing about in the coming months.

  6. Hey Joel- Enjoyed reading your essay. I’m looking forward to exploring concrete ideas on building more sustainable lifestyles and communities- and actually building them!

    Discussing and reevaluating the emphasis on individualism is also long overdue. I have to agree with you that Wendell Berry provides much guidance along these lines. His writing points toward a strong individualism dedicated to improving local community. Being a healthy individual is impossible without being a member of a healthy community. That energy flows back and forth in reinforcing ways. It also demands accountability and responsibility, two traits that the current economic system discounts repeatedly.

    Building new systems is what is needed. Systems not based on exploitation. If a foothold can be achieved along these lines, people will soon come to realize how poorly they have been treated and respond not with destructive anger and violence, but with a dedication to become part of something greater and more worthwhile. I am always reminded of the works programs developed and implemented during the Great Depression and the physical infrastructure created by those efforts. Still visible and used today, they offer proof that public works undertaken with the welfare of the people in mind endure for a long time.

    The efforts of Will Allen and Growing Power to bring food production to the urban setting and community are also inspirational. They are a positive way forward, but offer cautionary thinking. These efforts, without connection to some dedicated political movement are left wide open for subversion. The radical nature of these movements, and the social injustice that gave rise to them in the first place, are smothered in a cloud of propaganda. Without a political awakening and organization, efforts to avoid the hardships that are on the horizon are weakened by a large margin. Without political organization and strength, divide and conquer techniques prevail and we are back to individuals battling a strong and well organized system.

    Systems thinking indeed. Sorting through the complexity brings up the desire to cut the Gordian knot.

    • Hi Scott,

      Sorry for this late reply. I agree that individual action has to be coupled with strong and healthy communities. That’s one of the more devastating consequences of the ways we’ve been living and organizing ourselves—we’ve really destroyed many of the communities in this country, particularly rural communities. Rebuilding those is going to be a key element of any response, and I’ll be writing about that a bit down the line. There’s no reason that we can’t channel some of the anger and frustration into useful rebuilding of community—which would then help to disperse that reasonable anger.

      I’ve heard of Will Allan and Growing Power, but feel like I should take another closer look at increase my familiarity. It has sounded like he’s doing some really fantastic work and offering an alternate model of food production. I do think we need to create more of an overarching philosophy behind these actions that ties threads together, rather than approaches them in a reductionist manner. That’s part of what I’m hoping to do with the Closed System Economics posts.

  7. Joel – I have never owned a smart phone, save one I bought for $10 to listen to audio-books instead of an Ipod. There is no cellular at my farm. We use gray-water recycling and black-water into ‘the pit’ for sewage. Water is well (dug by us) and retention dams in the spring fed creek, along with rainwater catchment.

    We use line electricity, but the barns are wired with lighting from solar panels charging 12V battery for each building. Same thing for lots of water pumps and such – just plant a 12V battery and switch to 12V gear right at the source. If anything goes down, it’s local to the building, cheap and easy to replace or troubleshoot. And we didn’t have to upgrade the breaker box for more amperage or spring for long wire runs of 10g wire either. No digging trenches to run the wire either or worrying about accidentally uprooting the buried lines.

    We bought old tractors and such to avoid the pitfalls of ECU – there isn’t really a valid reason for cars having a computer, not when we could get 45 mpg from a Honda or Toyota back in the late 1970’s. This is triply true for tractors and any off-road vehicle.

    We have an attic fan installed in the farmhouse – 2 window-type AC units do for us between May and September, when the temp is over 95 most of the time. As of now, there is no need – sleeping under that fan will make you very cold during the night!

    We aren’t Luddites (or we wouldn’t be communicating this way), but we do ask ourselves what the true cost is, of everything. We call it the “extended cost”, which includes having to repair, replace or futz with something instead of using it to do work or reduce workloads. As well, if the device requires you to have it inspected periodically by an ‘expert’ or else it is blackboxed so you cannot even attempt a repair, it is effectively useless. The entire new generation of tractors falls into this category, sad to say.

    I would encourage you to explore “extended cost” for things in your thinking, and by that I mean things like raising chickens in dedicated buildings versus letting them run loose and accepting some losses due to bobcats and hawks. It seems to us letting them run free and then back in the coop at night may be equal to the cost of building and fencing and varmint proofing a large coop. Instead, we just let one hen set the eggs and hatch them each month. Headcount is actually climbing after the first 4 months of losses to local predators…

    • Wonderful! Sorry my reply’s a bit late, but thanks so much for your excellent comment and example. Sounds like you’re living pretty darn well there on the farm. I do like your “extended cost” analysis, which is really just taking into account external costs. That’s essential to understanding the true value of any technology or behavior. I will definitely be working to take that into account in the coming posts, as my newest post will hopefully make clear.

      As for your addendum, I don’t think advocating going back in time is very helpful. However, there are plenty of technologies and ways of living from the past that could be useful just now. Getting people to understand that we can choose to utilize long-neglected technologies from the past when they prove better than the technologies of the present, but that isn’t the equivalent of “going back,” is one of the real challenges in front of us.

  8. Addendum – I think advocating going back in time is asking us to forego a lot of learning. What may need to happen, and likely will, is a devolution to a lower energy state. A partnering of new and old, eschewing the highly complex in favor of simple and robust perhaps. A refutation of the ‘throwaway’ culture in favor of other things. Bottled water is just one simple thing that everyone can do away with in modern society, and that alone has huge ramifications.

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