Coffee With Doc: Re-Balancing Ourselves
Previous posts referred to a broad swath of environmental degradation undermining our consumptive way of life. Issues are global, but vary by location. Some of us don’t want to accept that this is happening; others are engaged in so many little initiatives that no one can know of them all. Another post also addressed progress toward a different system.
We’d all like to see a clear picture of that future system. We know that it is a much more localized system of doing, with people doing more for themselves, more local circular economies. Attempts to do so, like Homo Deus, are enlightening because they consider how we must change, and not just how technology may change. However, no one can foresee in detail what 2050 might look like. Instead, just go toward a new objective and a new system will evolve.
Objective: Preserve essential life, as a system. Human life depends on the health of all other life, so we can’t abuse the system supporting us forever.
A big social movement appears to be under way, beyond technical changes in our present way of life. People are beginning to do and think differently, seeking a new objective. Effective people – and societies – balance their yin and yang – their reflection and their action. The yin is adopting a new direction, constantly probing whether we are going where we need to go. The yang is getting off your butt, and actually doing.
The concepts of localizing, doing more near at hand, and setting your own local goals implies a big churn in economic thinking. In the distant past, labor was often the constraint on an economy, and we still have a labor theory of economics, that value comes from the sweat of a worker’s brow. Early in the industrial capitalist era, capital was in short supply; hence all the concepts and practices around maximizing return on capital. But in a Compression era, land in the broad sense is the limiting factor. We have to consider diminishing returns from natural resource deposits, and consider how to treat the earth so that it is not a mess, but a healthy environment for us and for everything else. Doing that is a balancing act, not blindly pursuing an ROI goal.Where to start? By doing anything that takes us in the direction of cutting consumption and preserving all life. For example, a local sixth grade class is learning to cut food waste, recycle, and grow a garden. That they can do. Developing systems to deal with Compression in greater depth is hopefully in their future. For that they have to learn to pursue an objective other than the consumptive dreams chased by most of their elders.
Real people can juggle multiple goals. For example many people grow a garden; even a modest one requires planning ahead, paying attention to soil and to weather, planting and tending suitable plants at the right time. Since each garden is somewhat unique, you work to assist nature, on nature’s time, not 9-5, thinking as you go. Successful gardeners pay attention and pay nature in advance; you can’t pay later, like for that vehicle you bought. Less successful gardeners don’t pay attention at the right time, or don’t pay in advance. (Being gone for a month in mid-season reaps disaster; I know.)
Technology helps, like monitoring degree-days, moisture content, soil composition, or even pH, but it’s TLC and forethought that counts. And if you chemically annihilate pests instead of fostering a natural balance around the garden, you’ll pay a price for the convenience. By working against nature, you work against yourself. And what is the objective of a successful garden? A good yield, season after season, garnering something even when conditions are adverse. You adapt to change and crises, but think total system, juggling interrelated variables – and leave it better than you found it.
When gardens do not do well, what’s wrong? We are too far removed from the total system that feeds us; physically removed, mentally removed, and emotionally removed. Perhaps the same applies to any system on which we depend for energy, for food, for health, or for almost anything. We chase single-minded objectives instead of long-term systemic ones. Commercial free markets are structured that way.
The root of many problems may be the framework in which we see them – or hide them. Problem solving swats more symptoms than root causes if the deepest root cause is our own separate, but narrow values frameworks – objectives going in all different directions. Both customers and suppliers seldom reflect on what is systemically best for us, long-term. We want what we don’t need and need what we don’t want (ask any addict). Why be deluded that we are always rational?
Take U.S. health care, for example. Assuming that all of it is good, funding it and access to it are fuel for perennial political flame throwing. Too seldom asked: How much health care actually benefits us? What kind does or doesn’t? Why?
Health care is generally understood as curative – fixing things gone wrong. Preventive health – wellness regimes – is generally recognized to be beneficial, but what percentage of people actually practice prevention? Addictions and many lifestyle habits are generally recognized to be hazardous to health, but what percentage of us kick habits that we know are bad for us? (A former employee refused to quit smoking; “Please do not deprive me of my one pleasure in life. Cancer? Big deal.”) What about mental heath, spiritual health – and public health?
Public health is usually credited with the biggest role in increasing longevity during the 20th century, but its essence evaporates in most governmental budgets. Water, sewage, and sanitation become necessary expenses to minimize.
Causes of rising health care costs are usually interpreted from a competitive market framework. Strip those away, and four reasons are aging population, increased obesity and chronic diseases, building new physical facilities, and excessive diagnosis and treatment. Give the system more technology, and reasons to use it follow. Anyone who uses health care regularly wearies of fragmented specialties, obscure billings, provider-payer gamesmanship, and confusing insurance rules. Monitoring your curative health care is a daily episode in mess management.
A “minor” item in the $2.9 trillion annual health care expense for the United States is an estimated $765 billion tab just for wasted supplies, bigger than the proposed defense budget of the United States, a mere $603 billion. Guesstimates that imply precision grab attention. The soft cost of unexamined assumptions does not.
Perhaps this mess is now too entangled to simplify. If we started over with a different concept of health care, with the objective of sustaining all essential life, what would it look like? Specifics are elusive, but it would have to be a more systemic approach to thinking in health care, with an emphasis on what we call Vigorous Learning Organization.