Coffee With Doc: Adopting Compression Thinking (video and blog)
Last Saturday, we went to Maria Morgan’s coffee shop. Maria asked about Compression and Compression Thinking. She had not heard of it before. I asked about her coffee shop business. I knew nothing about it except that her coffee was exceptionally good.
So we took Compression from the top, from global threats down to the dilemmas of actually doing something about it, right here, right now.
Limits: The world and all in it is limited for practical purposes. Consequently, we can’t keep using more resources forever. For the past 60 years or so, the simplest reasoning has been that our growth rate is doubling every 10, 20, or 50 years, depending on the resource. That has to stop sometime. If every doubling is from an ever bigger prior base, at some point another doubling is like eating up the whole world.
Disregarding all other factors, water alone is a good example. In many areas, demand for water keeps rising. The supply of it doesn’t. Around the globe, at least six major rivers have been tapped out, including the Colorado in the Western U.S. We keep looking for more sources to tap, but none of them appear to be big ones, or they are energy intensive, like desalinization, and big, cheap sources of fossil energy are depleting too.
Ditto for minerals. Many sources are depleting, and if we are depending on more energy to obtain minerals that are harder to retrieve, we are in a slowly contracting spiral.
Degrading Biosphere: The public may not track it closely, but naturalists are concerned that we are depleting biodiversity at a much faster rate than nature can generate adaptations to changing conditions. An example you can see is the widespread use of herbicides to kill weeds, but the weeds are food for wild pollinators that are diminishing. So in this arena, we have more down spirals.
Pushback: Not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) movements are increasing. Most of us like modern conveniences. We dislike even little inconveniences from the messes made to obtain them. Both the very rich and the very poor squawk if damage affects them personally. For example, no one loves being next to gas fracking. Protests range from grumbles to gunplay. NIMBY is a global phenomenon, more fundamental than the competition for resources that drives much of geopolitics today. More people occupy more space, while we must tear up more space obtaining raw material, processing it, moving it, selling it, storing it, and disposing of it. Clashes are inevitable, and squawks grow louder.So what are we going to do? Kill a lot of people as well as nature so that the rest of us can have what we have conditioned ourselves to think is a good quality of life?
Overconsumption: a major driver of all three of these problems. Reducing total consumption of energy and raw material by half or more seems drastic, but even this would merely diminish them. Why? Shrinkage is against the driving principle of our economic system – expansion, the opposite of Compression. Success is growth measured by making money doing whatever – earning ad money planting fake news, flipping real estate, or medical miracles to keep us alive longer. The service economy grows by consuming more and more stuff, and we are incessantly beguiled to buy more stuff that we don’t need using money we don’t have. There’s money in lending too. Just look at zero-interest credit card offers and payday loan ads. The financial system floats the bloat of expansion. Economists more likely refer to it as private as well as public debt rising as far as the eye can see.
Our real poverty is lack of imagination. Our answer to all economic problems, and many political ones, is to prime economic growth. Can’t we become more imaginative? Are we only making both ourselves and the planet sicker?
Physically, we know enough of what needs to be done to set a direction. Reduce, re-use, re-manufacture, recycle, design things to be compatible with the environment, and create circular economies with the circles close to points of use. Possibilities invite imagination applying technology to these objectives. Just in providing food, for example, we can eliminate an enormous amount of wasted food, wasted energy, and wasted chemicals.
However, the big hurdle is changing us, re-framing our thought about how we live to Compression Thinking, away from expansionary thinking – consuming without being conscious of its implications. For example, we like strawberries in the winter, and many other choices provided by global trading. Being used to them, we think little of it, but if we are its victims, we also dislike global commodification – locating operations at the lowest cost sites on earth. Paradoxically, commercial urging goads everyone to spend more money on faith that the great market in the sky will always provide. You can find plenty of doubters presenting a case that the global financial system underpinning endless consumption is debt fueled expansion that has to end sometime.
Besides environmental degradation, overconsumption also degrades us as humans, transformed into zombified consumers, tracked, analyzed, and labeled by credit ratings, our status largely based on monetary assets and income. When we buy a vehicle, for instance, besides taking us somewhere, it’s also a personal statement: this is who I am, part of my personal brand. (A “real man” disdains wimpmobiles.) At its worst, we become slaves indebted to our own consumption.
By Compression Thinking, quality is a good life, not driven by consumption, but one that everyone enjoys living. Perfection is impossible. We differ in what we enjoy as a quality of life, but it covers economic basics: food, clothing, and shelter. Beyond that, we exercise social responsibility, contributing to the welfare of others, and to their quality of life. That is, we escape being a zombie in “a system,” whether through government “welfare” or through private “welfare” subjugating us to private organizations. In this new world, we all need to become capable of participating in resolution of messes that dealing with a world in Compression will entail.
Taken to the level it should become, Compression Thinking implies developing ability to work together resolving complex problems. That verges on advancing ourselves to a new level of civility – if not a higher level of civilization – if we can be so presumptuous.
By expansion thinking, we don’t need to change; technology will resolve our issues. An ultimate of this is humans transforming themselves through technology, which is Transhumanism or perhaps as Ray Kurzweil projects, artificial intelligence will control of the world instead of incompetent humans. But what future is implied for humanity if technology changes us instead of serving us? And to what end? Technological nirvana does not resolve either the planet’s crises, or what we humans should become.
The Compression Institute proposes, in brief, three aspects to transitioning to Compression Thinking:
Values: Global awareness; seeing humanity as a whole; willingness to learn and to be responsible for regenerating nature (and ourselves); regarding quality over quantity; and long-term effectiveness over efficiency.
Systems: Based on adaptability and learning, not rules and regulations that can’t keep up.
Habits: Break consumptive habits; adopt regenerative ones. Deeply engrained habitual behavior is automatic, so our conscious behavior has to override it.
Many techniques have been developed to aid systemic problem solving. The exact techniques are less important than the desire to engage in them.
Maria’s Coffee Shop: Compression Thinking to Earth
The Octane Coffee and Tea House takes its name from a 1920s gasoline station. Maria Morgan did not found it to make money – a sign of Compression Thinking. She wants to benefit African coffee growers, and she wants a meeting point for people in her community. (Her African coffee is excellent, by the way.)
Of course, in a transactional world, the coffee shop has to make money or close. After a year, Maria is out of the “valley of death” financially, and concentrating more on creating awareness to bring people together. A few groups have started meeting there on a regular schedule. That both meets her objective and is steady repeat business.
Do we sell coffee or not? It’s been imported for centuries, but of course, coffee from Africa accumulates a sizeable environmental footprint just to reach Maria’s door. Coffee isn’t grown nearby, so do we sell it or not? Growing coffee within 200 miles is possible, but it would probably not taste nearly as good as coffee from an ideal growing region. Natural specialization is an argument used to justify foreign trade for centuries, but it’s not as disruptive as importing locally possible goods from a cheap location to compete on price.
Anyway, Maria sells coffee. It’s her main attractor. She wants to supplement coffee with locally grown produce and baked goods, but suppliers have to be cultivated. Start slow and build up, not competing based on lowest price, but on quality. Price to treat all her stakeholders fairly.
By serving many people on a patio, Maria does not have to heat or cool as much space. Her old gas station loses a lot of heat. Insulation can slow the loss when Maria gets ahead enough to afford it. Her equipment might be adapted to pull less electricity too.
Then one can ask more “over the edge” questions, like why brew hot coffee in an air conditioned room? That brings up social expectations and quality of life. Could Maria’s customers become so understanding of using less that they would expect her not to dump heat into a cooled room – or not to expect a chilly coffee shop? Although Maria is in a climate hot in summer, could customers learn to expect no air conditioning at all? In that case, why insulate? (Customers 100 years ago couldn’t get air conditioning. Might they actually have been healthier without it?)
Maria’s Octane Coffee and Tea House is a good setting to examine the close relationship between our concepts of quality of life and possibilities for drastically cutting our use of resources to have quality of life. These deserve more thought. Maybe we can have coffee shop dialogs about how to do it. Maybe some dialogs will even stimulate us to take action.