Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Problem with Surplus


*Apologies for contentiousness of this article. It is meant to spark discussion, but does reflect where I've been moving to internally.

Not to state the obvious, but we live in a society of tremendous change. Compared to the way life was lived 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, 10000 years ago - we might as well be aliens. The scale of time is pretty much nothing if you agree with the myths of science that say humans first came into being ~2 million years ago. But is 'tremendous change' synonymous with 'tremendous progress'?

As this article beautifully states, the accelerated rate of change correlated strongly with humanity's harnessing of exogenous sources of energy (this includes controlled fire, animal power, cultivated agriculture, slaves, and fossil fuels). In each case of technological advancement, we are in effect talking about more work with less human input (productivity). So instead of a person needing 3 hours to find food, he/she now can get roughly the same effect in 2 hours. Creating, in effect, a surplus of time, to be used for other activities (theoretically creating more happiness). You multiply that many many times over, and you have our society today.

All I've said thus far sounds great - more results, less time, more happies. what could be better? Except, that's not how it's actually playing out. How many folks do you know that have a surplus of leisure time? It turns out that there's a few chinks in the way this system is run that create pretty unfavorable results when played out to extremes (which we are now doing)-

1-Most of the surplus is captured by a few private parties: So what happened to all this free time our society has worked so hard to get me? Turns out I'm just another hamster on the wheel, trying to build even more surplus, even though in aggregate we already have more than we need. Why? Because if I don't, I can't pay rent. That's the nature of my surplus - if I save 2 hours a day by driving a car instead of biking, >90% of that saved time goes to my employer. If I save even more time flying instead of driving, same results. At every turn, the majority of surplus is being captured (in the form of profits) by the smallest sliver of people in the corporate hierarchy.

2-Most of the (unannounced) negative externalities do fall on us and the broader environment: Let's take a small example. Technology allows creation of tons of food by very few people. We all save time from not having to grow crops (which is then mostly spent working on other things instead). Now, the private company reaps the time benefits, but when I get diseases from eating this mass-produced food, well that's on me. And when the soils become unusably degraded, same deal. Key negative externalities from surplus - high volatility/inequality, environmental degradation, societal unhealthiness. In each case, things take a while to show up, but results are similar.

3-Happiness may be most easily accessible by not deviating from what nature evolved us to do: All this might even be worth it if human beings ended up quantifiably better off from the changes we're going for. However, I would argue that in aggregate that's not the case! Sure, in a vacuum you may say a Big Mac can make a person happier, but the eventual heart attack says otherwise. The holistic nature of technological progress is such that we cannot selectively accept it - its either all or nothing. Like a celebrity that loathes paparazzi, it is not possible to have one without the other. This means that while the internet may be bringing us together, it's all relative in a world where atom bombs and biological weapons exist. Personally, I have a hard time believing happiness is found by chasing anything outside ourselves.

So, given the above, one can say 'well, at least I have my MacBook and that makes it all worth it', or, one can be open to the idea that it may all be corrosive. Maybe, in aggregate, there is a better answer to be found in another direction.

I am NOT saying that its time to reject everything and become luddites (nor do I believe its possible once Pandora's box has been opened). However, there is value in cultivating intention, and intentionally moving away from pushing for more and more surplus at the edges. One step at a time; towards a way of living that is more aligned with the majority of our history, and away from compulsion towards illusory productivity.


Unknown said...

Wonderful piece, and I love the usual clear thinking always found in your posts.

I'd say that surplus without greed can be a blessing when used wisely, and instead aim the blame at greed.

Scarcity is just the shadow of greed. In the U.S. where our basics are amply met, the shadow is most apparently displaced into the temporal domain. Yet when the greed for new toys, new experiences, and new status gets relaxed, surplus of resources and time naturally bubbles forth.

My Life said...

Hello Unknown! :)

Thanks for this reflection! I definitely resonate. From my understanding, back before we were so technologically adept, it seems that the average person spent more of his/her day in relaxation, with only a couple hours spent actually completing subsistence activities. So apparently this search for surplus has led to the opposite! :)

The greed driver definitely seems like the root here, although in this case it manifests as a chase for surplus.

Your reflections were very helpful in pushing me, really grateful!