What Do We Mean by Compression?

Doing Business Like Nature (Video 8 minutes)

What Do We Mean by Compression? 

Compression is intended to expand our thinking dealing with the big squeeze on both us and the planet. There’s a dichotomy here: expand thinking; compress our use of resources – and much else. We use “compression” as an analogy in an uncommon sense, so first let’s tour several definitions of physical Compression.

Simple physical compression is a mechanical spring. Release the pressure and a resilient spring returns to shape. Squeeze non-resilient materials and they stay smashed. In the same way a resilient ecology absorbs abuses and keeps going, but if we push it beyond resilience, dies off. We can likewise think of societies or companies as resilient to pressure.

In computing data compression reduces the number of bits to be stored or transmitted by encoding redundancies; then decoding them for interpretation. For example, instead of transmitting the datum “yellow pixel” 500 times, encode it as “500 yellow pixels” and send it once. We do this all the time when we zip and unzip documents.

The term Compression was selected to illustrate our plight because it’s broader than Sustainability, which is usually interpreted as applying only to the environment. Think holistically and both we and the planet are in the same squeezes. Squeezes on us the “complexification” of the human environment – laws, rules, regulations, information explosions, and runaway consumerism.

We have to learn to think differently to keep the “spring” called earth resilient. If we can increase the resilience of the global ecology, it will regenerate – improve its health, which should also improve ours. To do that, we have to shrink our footprints, not continue expanding them. That’s Compression.

We are beset by many perils to the environment. Climate change is but one. If we suddenly discovered a huge source of energy that replaced fossil fuels, what would we do? Speed through all our other environmental red lights on the road to oblivion?

Here are six elements of the Big Squeeze on humanity:

  1. Human Population: The earth is not increasing in size. The human population is. There is less land and everything else to go around.
  2. Resource Limits: Estimates of all conventional sources of energy and minerals project that continuing the present growth rates of extraction will exhaust them by the end of the 21st century – even with recycling. We won’t run out. The concentration of most sources will deplete until it will take too much energy to concentrate them for use. More efficient extraction barely affects this basic geological physics.
  3. Biodiversity: The more space humans appropriate, for living space and to feed our consumption, the less space for all other forms of life. We depend on all other life. For example, only about 10% of our bodies are really us; the rest is zillions of microbes living as a complex symbiotic family. They can’t live without us; we can’t live without them.

The same is true of macro-ecologies. Keep encroaching, polluting, and poisoning, and at some tipping point, we kick away some underpinning of the entire human food chain. Human development should not exceed nature’s resilience. This is why one objective of Compression Thinking is to preserve all life indefinitely.

  1. Information Overload and Limited Human Bandwidth: Nobody can pay attention to everything, not even locally, much less globally. Omniscience is an impossible dream. All our sensors and computer models can’t encompass everything either. We filter what we can absorb from the deluge hitting us daily by testing whether new information fits into the frames of reference that our life experience tells us is reasonable. In a world in Compression, the use-by dates for these frames of reference are rapidly expiring.
  2. Psychology: Growing evidence shows that time saving convenience and overdosing on cyberspace are not good for us – not physically and not psychologically. Does being removed from directly experiencing nature or other humans make us psychologically empty – just consumptive automatons? What’s happiness to a cyborg? How about a rent-a-dad service?

We have to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be human?

Human emotions – love, hate, envy, nostalgia – often override our judgment. We have long been violent. We’re also collaborative — with friends, not “enemies.” Can we psychologically step up to preserving the future of all life? Of all our looming dangers, our vulnerability to our own “human nature” is a big one.

  1. Complexity: No one agrees on a definition of complexity, but let’s take a stab: A complex system is a collection of interacting sub-parts all behaving by local rules so that no central control is effective. The behavior of higher-level systems is not predictable from subsystems. New behaviors or properties may emerge unexpectedly.

Natural systems are complex. Human behavior is complex. Stock markets are complex – whipped by human emotion – but we keep trying to predict them anyway. We keep trying to characterize complexity using “linear” models that abstract it away.

To deal with the myriad complex problems of Compression, we need to adopt systemic thinking: How do we intervene, and as best we can determine, project the consequences of our interventions, near and far, in both time and space? That is, we need Compression Thinking, and guidelines for bringing it to the action level.

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