Efficiency

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Discussion

Resilience vs Efficiency

John Michael Greer:

"he rise of this term to its present popularity in green circles has a history worth noting. A year or two ago, the word “sustainability” began to lose its privileged place in the jargon of the time, as it began to sink in that no matter how much manhandling was applied to that much-abused term, it couldn’t be combined with the phrase “modern middle-class lifestyle” without resulting in total absurdity. Enter “resilience”, as another way to talk about what too many people nowadays want to talk about, generally to the exclusion of more useful conversations: the pretense that a set of lifestyles, social habits, and technologies that were born in an age of unparalleled extravagance can be maintained as the material basis for that extravagance trickles away.

The word “sustainability”, it bears remembering, has a perfectly clear meaning. It means, as the word itself suggests, the ability of something to be sustained, either for a set period of time – “sustainable over a twenty year period”, for example – or indefinitely. That was its problem as a green buzzword, because next to nobody wanted to talk about just how long the current crop of “sustainable” tech was actually likely to stay viable (hint: not very long), and even fewer were willing to grapple with the immense challenges facing any attempt to sustain any of today’s technologies into the indefinite future.

The problem with “resilience”, though, is that it also has a perfectly clear meaning. Once people figure out what that is, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be hunting for another buzzword in short order, because resilience can be defined very precisely: it’s the opposite of efficiency.

Okay, now that you’ve stopped spluttering, let me explain.

We can define efficiency informally as doing the most with the least. An efficient use of resources is thus one that puts as few resources as possible into places where they sit around doing nothing. The just-in-time ordering process that’s now standard in manufacturing and retail, for example, was hailed as a huge increase in efficiency when it was introduced; instead of having stockpiles sitting around in warehouses, items could be ordered electronically from a database so that they would be made and shipped just in time to go onto the assembly line or the store shelf. What nobody asked, and very few people have asked even yet, is what happens when something goes wrong.

The great Tohoku tsunami a few months back provided a wakeup call in that direction, as factories across Japan and around the world suddenly discovered that the shipment of parts they needed just in time for next month’s production runs had been delivered instead to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In the inefficient old days, when parts jobbers scattered all over the industrial world had warehouses full of parts being produced by an equally dispersed array of small factories, that would have given nobody sleepless nights, since the stock of spares on hand would be enough to tide things over until factories could run some extra shifts and make up the demand. Since production had been efficiently centralized in very few factories, or in some cases only one, and the warehouses full of parts had been rendered obsolete by efficient new ordering systems, knock-on costs that would have been negligible in 1970 are proving to be very substantial today.

Efficiency, in other words, is not resilient. What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down. Most bridges are designed and built with that sort of inefficiency in place, because the downside of too little efficiency (the bridge costs more to build) is a good deal less troubling than the downside of too little resiliency (the bridge collapses in a storm). Like every project worth doing, a good bridge has to strike a balance between many conflicting factors, no one of which can be maximized except at the expense of others of equal importance.

...

Thus efficiency is not resilient, and resilience is not efficient. Just-in-time ordering is conceptually the same as the Dymaxion car’s narrow wheelbase and high center of gravity: a great idea, as long as nothing goes wrong. Since it may have occurred to you, dear reader, that today’s industrial civilization seems to have a lot in common just now with these examples of high efficiency and low resilience, you may be thinking that it might turn out to be necessary to accept a lower degree of efficiency, in order to provide our civilization with the backlog of unused resources that will give it resilience.

Ah, but here’s where things get difficult.

There’s a reason why contemporary industrial culture is obsessed with efficiency, and it’s not because we’re smarter than our grandparents. Every civilization, as it nears the limits of its resource base, has to deal with the mismatch between habits evolved during times of relative abundance and the onset of shortages driven by too much exploitation of that abundance. Nearly always, the outcome is a shift in the direction of greater efficiency. Local governments give way to centralized ones; economies move as far toward mass production as the underlying technology will permit; precise management becomes the order of the day; waste gets cut and so, inevitably, do corners. All this leads to increased efficiency and thus decreased resilience, and sets things up for the statistically inevitable accident that will push things just past the limits of the civilization’s remaining resilience, and launch the downward spiral that ends with sheep grazing among ruins.

Trying to build resilience into a system that’s already gotten itself into this bind is a difficult project at best. The point of these efficiency drives, after all, is to free up resources to support the standards of living of the privileged classes. Since these same privileged classes are the ones who have to sign off on any project to redirect resources toward resilience, the difficulties in convincing them to act against their immediate self-interest are not hard to imagine. Since efficiency tends to take an aura of sanctity in such cases – privileged classes, after all, are as prone as anyone else to convince themselves that what’s good for them is good for everyone – proponents of resilience face an uphill fight against deeply rooted assumptions. After all, who wants to go on record in support of inefficiency?

And of course that’s exactly what we’ve seen in recent decades in industrial society. The Glass-Steagall Act, which imposed resilience on the US banking system at the cost of a fair amount of inefficiency, is a good example; it was gutted by an enthusiastically bipartisan majority, giving us the highly efficient but hopelessly brittle financial system we have today. Many other measures that put resilience into the system were also scrapped in the name of “competitiveness”, though it’s worth noticing that America’s ability to compete in any arena that doesn’t involve blowing large chunks of a Third World country to kingdom come has gone down steadily while these allegedly competitive measures have been at work. All of it, slogans aside, served to free up resources to maintain living standards for America’s privileged classes – a category that extends well down into the middle class, please note, and includes a great many people who like to denounce the existing order of American society in heated terms.

That’s our version of the trap that closes around every society that overshoots its resource base. The struggle to sustain the unsustainable – to maintain levels of consumption the remaining resource base won’t support indefinitely – always seems to drive the sort of short-term expedients that make for long-term disasters. I’ve come to think that a great many of the recent improvements in efficiency in the industrial world have their roots in this process. Loudly ballyhooed as great leaps forward, they may well actually be signs of the tightening noose of resource constraints that, in the long run, will choke the life out of our civilization.

Thus it’s a great idea in the abstract to demand a society-wide push for resilience, but in practice, that would involve loading a great many inefficiencies onto the economy. Things would cost more, and fewer people would be able to afford them, since the costs of resilience have to be paid, and the short term benefits of excessive efficiency have to be foregone. That’s not a recipe for winning an election or outcompeting a foreign rival, and the fact that it might just get us through the waning years of the industrial age pays nobody’s salary today. It may well turn out that burning through the available resources, and then crashing into ruin, is simply the most efficient way for a civilization to go.

Where does that leave those of us who would like to find a way through the crisis of our time and hand down some part of the legacy of our civilization to the future? The same principles apply, though it’s fortunately true that individuals, families, and local communities often have an easier time looking past the conventional wisdom of their era and doing something sensible even when it’s not popular. The first thing that has to be grasped, it seems to me, is that trying to maintain the comfortable lifestyles of the recent past is a fool’s errand. It’s only by making steep cuts in our personal demand for resources that it’s possible to make room for inefficiency, and therefore resilience.

Most of the steps proposed in these essays, in turn, are inefficient – indeed, deliberately so. It’s unquestionably inefficient in terms of your personal time and resources to dig up your back yard and turn it into a garden; that inefficiency, however, means that if anything happens to the hypercomplex system that provides you with your food – a process that reaches beyond growers, shippers and stores to the worlds of high finance, petroleum production, resource politics, and much more – you still get to eat. It’s inefficient to generate your own electricity, to retrofit your home for conservation, to do all the other things we’ve discussed. Those inefficiencies, in turn, are measures of resilience; they define your fallback options, the extra strength you build into the bridge to your future, so that it can hope to stand up to the approaching tempests.

The emerging patterns of the salvage economy that have been discussed here over the last few weeks feed into this same quest for resilience. Many older technologies, of the sort that might readily be salvaged and put to use, are a good deal less efficient than their modern replacements, and therefore much more resilient." (http://billtotten.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/salvaging-resilience/)

Source: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2011/07/salvaging-resilience.html