Blessed are the wastrels, for their surplus could save the Earth

Reposted from an article in “the Conversation”. 

In a world where too many go to bed hungry, it comes as a shock to realise that more than half the world’s food production is left to rot, lost in transit, thrown out, or otherwise wasted. This loss is a humanitarian disaster. It’s a moral tragedy. It’s a blight on the conscience of the world.

It might ultimately be the salvation of the human species.

To understand why, consider that we live in a system that rewards efficiency. Just-in-time production, reduced inventories, providing the required service at just the right time with minimised wasted effort: those are the routes to profit (and hence survival) for today’s corporations. This type of lean manufacturing aims to squeeze costs as much as possible, pruning anything extraneous from the process. That’s the ideal, anyway; and many companies are furiously chasing after this ideal.

Unfortunately there is often a trade-off between efficiency (producing the same goods at lowest cost) and resiliency (strength against unexpected crises). Protection against crises or disasters generally costs money. You need to maintain reserves and build up unused inventories. You need to develop contingency plans and train workers. You need excessively robust or excessively flexible manufacturing capabilities. You need a branch of your bureaucracy devoted to worst-case scenarios, with all the salaries and time that goes with that. And if you do all that – well, there are other companies out there, very willing to swoop in and take all your customers with their reduced costs. Resilient organisations go to the wall.

Bleak swans

Smaller, more regular disasters can be absorbed as a simple cost of doing business. But larger disasters, the large volcanic eruptions, the super-plague (natural or engineered), the one-in-a-hundred-year events… Well, how many companies expect to be in business in a hundred years anyway?

Thus, the very efficiency that has driven human production to its dizzying peaks, creates a brittleness and a fragility to crises or disasters that are slightly too large. And the whole system is connected: when one part starts being overwhelmed, when one category of ultra-specialised manufacturers go under, others that rely on it will start to suffer too. This could be followed by knock-on effects across the economy, hitting consumers and employees and spreading to other industries. A slightly-too-large disaster may bring down our interconnected economy just as effectively as a huge disaster would.

So it is important to preserve sources of resiliency where they exist. And the current waste in the world’s food system is such a source. It’s a tragedy that rich Westerners and aspiring rich Westerners eat wasteful meat and that supermarkets and individuals throw away so much food (indeed half the food purchased in Europe and the US is thrown away by consumers). But what that means is that there is a lot of slack in the system. If disaster struck, we could go back to eating more vegetables and carefully preserving excess foodstuffs. Even if half the world’s food production was wiped out by a super-plague, we’d still have enough to feed most of the people we feed today.

There are other inefficiencies in the world economy that translate into resiliency for our species. Of course, not all that is inefficient is resilient – some waste is just waste (for food, we could do a lot about not throwing away imperfect vegetables, but little about insect damage). What we are looking for is something that is wasteful, but could quickly be changed to be less wasteful if necessary. Perversely (and tragically), this could do more good for the human species that getting rid of all waste, which would improve the lives of more people, at the cost of making the whole system more brittle.

Good candidates for resilient inefficiencies are luxury goods. Spending on strict personal luxuries (jewelry, perfume, expensive cars, etc…) represents more than half a trillion dollars per year; but less blatantly excessive “luxuries” also abound. Organic farms are an example: they use their inputs (land, grain, animals) to produce food at higher cost and lower quantity than conventional farming. The advantages of organic food appeal to richer, western consumers. But if the situation were desperate, organic farms could be retooled for mass production of lower-quality but still edible foods. The same goes for factories making super-plasma, hyper-surround cinema-experience televisions (or similar toys for the wealthy). This rich demand maintains a manufacturing base for extreme luxury products, but one that could be repurposed for mass production of less extravagant but more useful products if needed.

There are many other examples of inefficient resilience. Transport systems are another example: in many countries, there are multiple redundant ways of making the same trip, not all of them filled to maximum capacity. Democracy also qualifies: the great efforts political parties spend denigrating each other can be swiftly replaced with common purpose in case of, to give an extreme example, external attack. Government subsidies represent resources that could be redirected if really needed: the more wasteful they are, the easier this is. A standing army is an ultimate example: serving no efficient purpose at all, it yet makes the country much more resilient. In biology, the immune system and evolution itself are both robust and hideously inefficient.

Surplus requirements

It might seem perverse to promote inefficiency in the name of resiliency. And it is perverse. It would be much more effective to make production as efficient as possible, while some organisations – most likely governments – built up a surplus of goods and capabilities that could be used in case of disaster.

But such carefully planned resiliency might not – if you will pardon the phrasing – be very resilient. The accumulated surplus has no-one to speak for it, no constituency defending it, no faction profiting from it. In times of plenty, it would seem to be – and indeed it would be – an unprofitable waste, and furthermore a clear and visible waste. A waste that could be transformed into value at the stroke of a politician’s pen. The same tension that exists between companies would exist between governments, each pressured to spend their surplus rather than accumulate it. On purely moral grounds, could anyone defend accumulating a surplus for a hypothetical future disaster while people starved today?

In contrast, resiliency through inefficiency is much more robust. It has natural constituencies: farm lobbies, healthy eaters, rich consumers looking for the latest novelty goods. It rests on traditional (or inefficient) ways of doing things, requiring no change or innovation. It does not require active policy interventions, or even acknowledgement of the issue. As long as it is left alone, it will always be there, a reserve of resiliency ready to be tapped. As below, so above: the most inefficient way of producing resiliency is also the most… resilient.

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2 Responses to Blessed are the wastrels, for their surplus could save the Earth

  • Stefanny says:

    Your point made all the sense in the world 30 years ago Dianne. A University edcuation was still an edcuation it was very inexpensive in my case all but free and back then 80% of people had jobs where s credential like that counted.Today a student often gets a poor learning experience with large classes little contact with the prof text book versus enquiry as the process.Today most leave with 20 50K in debt and now the jobs are disappearing. In 1980 80% of people were employed in jobs. Today it is 60% and the Job is disappearing. More and more people are having to create their own employment that demands that they have real skills I don’t mean here only technical skills but more important the skill of being self relient and self motivated. School reinforces the opposite of these skills. School is all about fitting into a structure and being obedient.Who today still demands the traditional credential? Mainly bureaucratic organizations. Which organizations are under the most pressure and who are reducing their workforce? Bureaucratic organizations.What organizations are growing the most and offer the most good work? Networked organizations. How do they hire? They demand that the person can do and prove that they can do the work. A degree does not do that.Not to say you should not have a degree but that you must not over invest in one.Can you get educated to a high level without attending 4 years full time at a university? Yes you can now 20 years ago this was hard. Now all the best universities are offering their best content online. New businesses are opening up to make it easy to get more from these.What John is asking is for people to consider the ROI on their choices now in the context of the new workplace and the costs of getting a degree that is itself so much less than it used to be.

  • Randa says:

    I came across your weistbe/blog while recently working on post for my own blog on stepping out of my box. Wow! Then to read your recent message here about believing we have more than is required. For the first time in my life I truly believe those words. My husband at the age of 41 decided to enlist in the Army Reserves and was gone for 6 months of training. During this same time my oldest son also enlisted in the Navy. Immediately I became an Army Wife and Navy Mom and found myself with no option but to believe I had the strength to handle this seperation from two of the people that mean the most to me. My husbands desire to pursue a passion, has inspired me to do the same. It has shown my that I have an inner strength and so much more to offer, more than is required. THANK YOU for your inspiring messages.

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