Efficiency be Damned

| 19th January 2009
Far from being a silver bullet for climate change, efficiency is the driving force for ever more gluttonous consumption patterns and all the health and environmental consequences they entail

As the polar caps calve icebergs the size of small countries, glaciers melt and water laps about the ankles of South Pacific islanders, the answer to climate change from experts is virtually a chorus: apply efficiency. From the factory floor to the kitchen, doing things faster and using fewer resources and less labour have become universally accepted goals and the solutions of choice to avoiding more global warming. Hybrid motor cars won’t use as much petrol, hungry electrical appliances will be redesigned to be happy on short rations, better insulation will mean across-the board savings, and all this combined will mean less energy use. In short, the greater application of efficiency will save us without painful sacrifice and lifestyle adjustment having to be made.

And if you believe that, you probably thought that using computers would reduce paper consumption. In fact, exactly the opposite has been the case. The ease of writing and printing that modern computing has put in everyone’s hands has meant more paper use than ever before. Efficiency has the habit of producing unexpected and unintended consequences.

The idea of getting the most from the least (itself an outgrowth of Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century philosophy of utilitarianism) was a prelude to the Industrial Revolution. In the early 1900s, Frederick W Taylor carried the idea further. The founder of scientific management, Taylor divided tasks into specific actions and used fractionated time analysis to get the most from workers. He dreamed of taking efficiency out of the factory and applying it to every aspect of life to increase production throughout society. ‘Our larger wastes of human effort,’ he said, ‘which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient… are less visible, less tangible and… but vaguely appreciated.’ We were slackers and could do better.

To a large extent Taylor was successful. Efficiency moved out of the factory into the living room. It has become the mantra of the age, producing the pressured modern life, in which squeezing every drop of time from the day seems reasonable. To question efficiency begins to sound like heresy.

Yet efficiency is not only the dirty little secret behind increased energy use (graphs reveal that even as the things we use are made more energy-efficient, energy use increases); it’s a big part of the reason why the world is experiencing serious shortages. Doing more with less has not translated into using less, but into doing more and using more.

Efficiency has ushered in a golden age of consumption. Decreased production costs have meant that the potential for accumulating consumer goods has increased for all: more clothing, more household goods, more gizmos and trinkets, bigger houses with more bathrooms.

As household gadgetry has become more efficient and demands less power, we’ve simply increased the number of gadgets (or the complexity of gadgets), even invented entirely new categories of them. Do we really need electronic dartboards and rotating tie-racks? Are mobile phones really efficient? Or have they merely meant more people are talking to each other more often than ever before, all the while saying very little? Certainly, they haven’t reduced telephonic communication. And their complexity requires far more initial use of energy than conventional telephones.


Better insulated houses have not led to people using less fuel, but encouraged the establishment of new standards of comfort. Now they can be warmer than they ever expected to be, and instead of using less fuel they are using the same or more. As the fuel efficiency of cars has improved, everyone has simply taken to driving more and, particularly in the US, living further outside urban areas.

But efficiency isn’t limited to energy use. As fishing fleets employed new technologies to find and capture fish more effectively, more people around the world are eating more fish and stocks are rapidly being depleted. As timber harvesting went from handsaws to power saws and now to feller-bunchers (huge mechanised monsters that can cut, strip and stack logs at astonishing rates), the forests are being depleted at a pace that makes sustainability impossible. As more efficient agriculture became the norm and more efficient means of transportation have been developed, we’re spending less to eat more and our diets have expanded from selections limited by local climates to global possibilities. The seasons have vanished as even the average consumer can consider eating raspberries or asparagus year-round and worldwide applications of efficiency in production and distribution have made consuming them a possibility that would have seemed wildly luxurious a generation or two ago.

But efficiency has yielded some real disasters. It was in pursuit of efficiency that agri-business came up with the idea that recycling diseased animals into feed for cattle was good for beef and milk production. And we know where that led. Efficient transportation in the form of air travel has meant that diseases that start in one part of the world can now be spread halfway round the globe in a matter of hours. Trucks and trade efficiently facilitated the original spread of the Aids virus.

With efficient food production, mass processing and rapid widespread distribution, the kind of mistake that once might have produced a local outbreak of food poisoning can now have national or global consequences. In 1994 the poor cleaning of tanker trucks carrying liquid eggs resulted in the contamination of an ice cream mix that, because of the mass production and efficient national distribution system of the company involved, spread salmonella over the entire continental US, resulting in an estimated 223,000 cases of infection. E. coli O157:H7, sometimes called the ‘hamburger bacteria’, was unknown in 1976; thanks to the worldwide trade in beef, it had spread virtually around the globe by 1996. Emerging-disease experts are looking warily at the new bird influenza in Asia, knowing that once it starts spreading from person to person global transportation networks could quickly, and very efficiently, create a pandemic.

When you start looking for examples of the ugly side of efficiency they are everywhere, but few people blame so many of modern life’s commonplace stresses and frustrations on the principle. To spend a bloodpressure-raising five minutes on the telephone pressing buttons for voice-mail selections that don’t really apply is to be the victim of someone else’s application of efficiency. Like it or not, you are the company’s new receptionist, doing the work that someone else once did for you. Usually, these transfers of labour are accompanied by that reassuring Orwellian phrase ‘for your enhanced convenience’. Don’t believe it.

Companies have efficiently transferred their work to you as you serve yourself, clear your own table, pump your own petrol, check your own oil, bag your own groceries, pay bills and manage your money on the computer. Soon, we are told, we overworked consumers will be checking ourselves out at the electronic cashier. All of this is creating more productivity and thus more profit for the company, but also more work for the individual consumer, who is justifiably feeling overwhelmed. Frustration and alienation follow.

Efficiency is the stray dog that followed you home from the office. Multi-tasking may be good for the economy, but no fun for the rest of the family. Convenience foods are efficient, but cooking and eating together have intrinsic value in the family setting. To-the-minute scheduling is what businesses do, not humans. If time has become a tyrant, the cult of efficiency is to blame. Most things that people really enjoy, the essentials of living and loving, aren’t efficient at all.

Efficiency has its place, but it no longer knows it. And it’s not going to solve the problems of energy over-consumption on its own. A re-prioritising of values and genuine conservation might.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2005


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