Efficiency and Resilience–Mutually Exclusive?

Efficiency and Resilience—Mutually Exclusive?  —by Jinny Batterson

The stay-at-home phase of the covid-19 pandemic has given me more time to wonder about human futures, along with ready access to the internet and a husband who’s keen to curate podcasts and videos he thinks I would benefit from hearing and seeing.  Last week, he sat me down to watch an hour-long talk and Q&A featuring Dan Ariely, a working-from-home internationally acclaimed psychology professor at nearby Duke University. Ariely contrasted our tendencies toward efficiency and resilience. (https://today.duke.edu/2020/04/using-social-science-aid-fight-against-covid-19).  In a shorter interview printed in an India-based magazine, Ariely explained: 

 “This virus demonstrated that we are ill-prepared for a catastrophe … hospitals are equipped to deal with the standard inflow and outflow. Almost all normal hospitals don’t have extra capacity. Our economic systems are basically designed to work efficiently, as efficiently as possible. But they are not designed for a day of emergency. Very few governments would say let’s put money aside for a rainy day. There are very few companies that do it.” (https://openthemagazine.com/features/pandemic-related-behavioural-changes-wont-last-long-dan-ariely/) 

The notion that we humans too often opt for efficiency over resilience, emphasizing short term gain rather than long term viability, has been around nearly as long as humans have thought and written. It gains traction during times of chaos or rapid change. Books exploring two variations of this idea came out when I was a young adult beginning a career in the rapidly expanding, then relatively new field of computer-mediated commercial data processing. One was Alvin Toffler’s 1970 treatise Future Shock, which theorized that the increasingly rapid pace of change was disorienting to humans being required to adapt on many levels in a short time period. The other, The Limits to Growth, was a 1972 volume co-authored by Donella Meadows, an outgrowth of an early computer modeling exercise to study interlocking factors that might limit the future viability of human societies on planet earth: population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation. 

My attempts to sidestep the shock and stay within the limits have so far been partially successful: I’ve been able to create a wide network of family, friends, and colleagues who’ve helped buffer the impact of multiple life changes by sharing support and humor; partly out of choice and partly through necessity, I’ve been more limited than many in reproduction, food habits, resource use, material output, and pollution generation.  However, these earlier habits have not helped much to inform my response to the novel corona virus. So I wondered, what might Toffler and Meadows have to say about our current dilemmas?  

Both Toffler and Meadows have died. Both left change-studying institutions as parts of their legacy. Toffler Associates (https://www.tofflerassociates.com) presents itself as a “future focused strategic advisory firm.”  Meadows co-founded a predecessor to the non-profit Academy for Systems Change (https://www.academyforchange.org), whose mission is “to advance the field of awareness-based systemic change in order to accelerate ecological, social, and economic well-being,” a tall order in these uncertain times. I’d encourage those of you with time and internet access to explore Ariely’s insights, along with both these groups’ online presence. 

In the Academy’s archives is an article written by Meadows in the late 1990’s, still somewhat applicable: “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” (http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/) In her article, Meadows argues that many of the interventions we espouse to “fix”  a system are either immaterial or counterproductive. Midway through her exposition of twelve increasingly influential leverage points are “negative feedback loops”: 

“Nature evolves them and humans invent them as controls to keep important system states within safe bounds. A thermostat loop is the classic example. Its purpose is to keep the system state called ‘room temperature’ fairly constant at a desired level. … A complex system usually has numerous negative feedback loops it can bring into play, so it can self-correct. … One of the big mistakes we make is to strip away these ‘emergency’ response mechanisms because they aren’t often used and they appear to be costly.”   

Part of our flat-footedness in responding to a novel corona virus has been the creakiness or absence of emergency human health response mechanisms on a global scale. It’s my hope that we may muddle through this crisis without catastrophic human damage, but with enough impact to prod us toward becoming more resilient, both in our personal choices and in our institutions.

The “Club of Rome,” which underwrote the study on which The Limits to Growth is based, still exists. It still provides cautions about its perceptions of humans’ misappropriations of global resources. But its pronouncements are not entirely doomsday. It continues to embrace, too, the hopefulness of Limits’ conclusion: 

The book contains a message of hope, as well: Man can create a society in which he can live indefinitely on earth if he imposes limits on himself and his production of material goods to achieve a state of global equilibrium with population and production in carefully selected balance.

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