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.