Monday, August 6, 2007

How efficiency maximizes catastrophe

From, a perceptive essay on the pursuit of efficiency, and the toll it exacts on our resilience: ...Our current economic system is designed to maximize outputs and minimize costs. (That's what we call efficiency.) Efficiency eliminates redundancy, which is abundant in nature, in favor of finding the one "best" way of doing something -- usually "best" means most profitable over the short run -- and then doing it that way and that way only. And we aim for control, too, because it is more efficient to command than just let things happen the way they will. Most of our knowledge about how natural systems work is focused on how to get what we want out of them as quickly and cheaply as possible -- things like timber, minerals, water, grain, fish, and so on. We're skilled at breaking systems apart and manipulating the pieces for short-term gain.

Think of resiliency, on the other hand, as the ability of a system to recover from a disturbance. Recovery requires options to that one "best" way of doing things in case that way is blocked or disturbed. A resilient system is adaptable and diverse. It has some redundancy built in. A resilient perspective acknowledges that change is constant and prediction difficult in a world that is complex and dynamic. It understands that when you manipulate the individual pieces of a system, you change that system in unintended ways. Resilience thinking is a new lens for looking at the natural world we are embedded in and the manmade world we have imposed upon it.

In the world today, efficiency rules. The history of our industrial civilization has essentially been the story of gaining control over nature. Water-spilling rivers were dammed and levied; timber-wasting forest fires were suppressed; cattle-eating predators were eliminated; and pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics were liberally applied to deal with those pesky insects, weeds, and microbes that seemed so intent on wasting what we wanted to use efficiently. Today we are even engineering the genetic codes of plants and animals to make them more efficient.

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