Guidelines to Compression Thinking:
How can we cope with the myriad environmental disasters upon us? First, we must accept that they exist, and that they are serious. So serious that ordinary strategic thinking is inadequate because it presumes that the future will be like the past – except for a few changes. But to deal with total system changes and forge a new way of life, we must go deeper than imagining a scenario of a desired future state and work backwards into a plan, with milestones leading to that state. That presumes no change in the core system of business, while changes in values and core assumptions can’t be mapped in operational detail. We need a new perspective from which to decide what we can do as individuals, as groups, and as societies. Hence the “Guidelines to Compression Thinking.”
There are only four guidelines and they interrelate. The change in thinking is so deep that it bores into almost any life issue — even how many children you should bring into the world. Look at the world in a whole new way.
The essence of Compression Thinking is learning to see what we physically do, and beyond that, what we physically do to nature, not obscured by monetary interpretations. Create future possibilities from a mindset of seeing yourself and mankind in a symbiotic relationship with nature. Expand your mind; compress your footprint.
1. Finite Earth. Its Limits Have Deep Implications:
Although big compared to human bodies, Earth is not infinitely big. It has limits. Every resource we use from it has limits. They may be fuzzy, but they exist. Likewise, earth’s capacity to absorb anything we dump into it is also limited. Even near-Earth space is filled with junk that endangers satellites. Conventional economics assumes unlimited expansion of physical consumption, but many limits restrict this, not just one. If one does not stop us, others will. Here’s a partial list of limitations:
- Climate change: real, serious, but still only an exacerbation of other potentially existential problems.
- Ozone holes: Real, in check, but excess ozone depleters are still going into the air.
- Water shortages and water pollution.
- Declining return on energy extracting fossil fuels and devising alternative sources of energy.
- Soil erosion and soil degradation.
- Loss of biodiversity.
- Widespread dispersion of toxic substances (plastics and plasticizers are recently trumpeted examples).
- Ocean acidification and contamination.
- Plain overconsumption — too much stuff to manage, trouble maintaining what we already have.
- Vulnerability of complex, interconnected systems to cyber attack and cascading failure.
All these limits and more interrelate, so they take time and effort to comprehend. So please study them for yourself. That will end complacency; then seek what to do. Compression Thinking is a guide toward you thinking about what you can do. Begin your own version of it. The clincher argument is that if we could tap infinite energy, would we waste it multiplying all the other problems that could do in the human race?
Here are a few starter concepts:
a. As best you can, check the total system return on energy of any significant proposal to obtain energy. Check the energy usage of any proposed process.
b. Beware of slowly accumulating effects, like garbage build ups, and the long-term effects of slow toxin build ups.
c. Think about how you can live well while greatly reducing resource use (reuse, recycle, etc.). Can you reach zero-to-landfill, for example. If so how?
d. Start where you can. Individuals can make a small difference, but big changes require a dramatic shift in how we collectively work and think. We have to change the core systems by which we all live, work, and play.
2. Symbiotic Thinking
This is systems thinking, which has a long history and many branches, with an added twist. Always include the effects on nature, near and far, of any system you study — or intervene in. That is, do not limit your perspective of a system to small, limited boundaries because it is easier — easier to think about and easier to quantify — as is done in engineering and business.
Keeping effects on nature in mind prevents systems thinking from becoming focused on me, or my company, or my organization. If we accept that human life depends on all other life, the benefits or usefulness of a system can’t be limited to human welfare. (The cells in our bodies are only 10% us; the rest are microbes with which we are symbiotic.) We are part of nature, not separate from it. Consciousness of this is the core of symbiotic thinking. Making it a habit takes practice.
Symbiotic thinking changes our definitions of success. It changes what we think “better” means. It shifts our concepts of values and valuations.
And it presses us to think of our actions as interventions in systems, rather than fixes of a rigid process. We can fix a tire. We can “fix” a traffic ticket. But we can’t fix nature. Its propensity to maximize life in any space, given the conditions, means that it has an agenda of adaptation different from whatever fixes we may apply. And if we have abused natural processes, we can intervene to help them heal themselves, whereas a fix without understanding nature’s system may only make the abuse worse.
With symbiotic thinking we seek interventions that achieve several desired outcomes at once. For example, soil can be improved by loosening it, digging small catchments that let it rehydrate, and stopping the application of biocides that inhibit microbial action. All the benefit is not to us; whereas if we try to maximize immediate crop yield, we have a narrow, short-term objective, giving little heed to the long-term health of both us and the nature on which we will continue to depend. Symbiotic thinking considers the needs of future generations, not only of humans’ grandchildren, but of future generations of all the life with which our welfare is inextricably symbiotic.
Finally, symbiotic thinking stimulates us to question our beliefs. Because of our own limiting assumptions, we may concentrate on efficiency achieving goals that in the end do not serve us well. And we can be incredibly proficient being efficient — doing the wrong things. First be effective; then incredibly efficient. For example, some animals are incredibly efficient catching prey; a waterbird nailing a fish is an example of being efficient — for the bird. But overall, nature is not efficient in the same sense we think of it. It thrives on a healthy balance, not on any element being dominant forever. And one element is us.
3. Organize for Learning, for Effectiveness Before Efficiency
No individual human can know it all. It’s impossible. We can’t be everywhere, seeing everything. We have to learn how to learn collectively, as groups of people having different perspectives and able to integrate that knowledge. That implies symbiotic thinking, and being aware that learning is continuous, never complete because conditions are always changing.
Today many human organizations are collections of specialists. These specialties often have trouble communicating, an effect often called a “silo problem.” That’s the effect of trying to organize for efficiency. We became incredibly efficient by commanding huge amounts of energy and focusing it on tasks that are specialized and standardized. (Lean operations correct this somewhat by concentrating on flow efficiency instead of work station or departmental efficiency, but we may not question the effectiveness of those work flows — their overall effects on uninvolved, “non-stakeholder” people, much less nature.
How can we organize to learn collectively in a broader sense? Very differently from a historical hierarchy. We will retain hierarchy for some purposes. But for fast learning about effectiveness dealing with complex systems, here are a few starter ideas:
- Resolve issues through group dialog, which is an art to learn and practice
- Identify all factors of a situation as much as possible, including all “stakeholders,” one of which is nature.
- Strive to understand our own motives and (possibly hidden) assumptions.
- Learn to identify and map complex causal loops.
- Learn how to agree on facts, all facts as they can now be detected and verified. Keep rules of evidence and record keeping rigorous.
- Learn to practice the Precautionary Principle (anticipate unwanted effects as far ahead and as far afield as you can, and “first do no harm”).
- Try to avoid the deceptions of monetizing values.
- Defer any final decisions until a situation is well mapped and jointly understood.
This process obviously becomes involved and time consuming. You can be trapped in situations where a decision has to be made immediately, or be trapped in analysis paralysis. Mastering the art of group learning takes a lot of practice, and it is probably more demanding than mastering any technical skill. But if we are to blend deep expertise with broad considerations, it is necessary.
4. Quality Over Quantity, Always.
If we are determined to live well while consuming far fewer resources, we have to think quality before quantity, not throwing a lot of stuff at a problem.
Quality in Compression Thinking is broader than quality of a product or a service. In Compression, it is the quality of all life, not just human life. In this sense, quality is the quality of the balance in nature: life cycles, water cycles, energy cycles.
Quantity implies something countable. Business likes things that are countable. Management of countable things is clearer, and easier. We can manage by the numbers. Quality of all life is not so easy to measure, but it is not an increase in resource consumption. First, reduce resource consumption. Then try to hold or improve quality of life. Quality of life may improve just by you rethinking what a quality life means to you, probably enough of the basics to physically thrive, plus a purpose in life to give it meaning — life satisfaction.
However, the economic systems we live by emphasize quantities. The many self-deceptions in this pseudo rationality narrow our perception.