The Case Against Efficiency By Nicols Fox
Sunday, February 15, 2004;
As an idea, it seemed the model of efficiency. Stew up an assortment of unwanted animal carcasses and call the resulting material rendered animal protein. Include it in animal feed and you’ll see increased growth and, in the case of dairy cows—never mind that they are natural herbivores—increased milk production.
It might have been recycling at its best, wasting nothing, but it turned out to be efficiency at its worst. Feeding diseased animals back to animals led to Britain’s epidemic and North America’s outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Fed the same material, some domestic and big zoo cats contracted the feline version as well.
Even with the assumption that cooking would kill any pathogens, common sense might have predicted a bad outcome from such an unsavory practice.
But common sense has little currency just now. Instead, what counts is doing whatever needs doing in the fastest, cheapest, most intensely productive way, expending the least effort or energy with the minimum of raw materials. We call that efficiency—and it has become the value that trumps every other.
It’s in our heads now, a dogma that has been internalized: To be efficient is good, to be inefficient is bad. Questioning that creed begins to feel like heresy. Other values don’t stand a chance in the equation. Yet efficiency operates too often without regard for long-term consequences, and giving it our unquestioning allegiance is creating more problems than anyone might have imagined.
Researching a book on emerging food-borne pathogens about a decade ago, I began getting clues that efficiency wasn’t living up to its reputation. The small-scale food poisoning outbreaks of the past, the spoiled potato salad at the family reunion kind of thing, were being supplanted, I discovered, by huge, nationwide outbreaks from contaminated commercial foods that were efficiently mass-produced, mass-processed and widely distributed. One salmonella-tainted, nationally distributed brand of ice cream produced 224,000 cases of salmonellosis in 48 states in 1994.
We’ve become too efficient for our own good . Watching the dwindling catches of local fishermen from my vantage on the Maine coast, it has occurred to me that efficiency is the reason that every bite of haddock feels like it could be my last and the taste of cod is rapidly becoming a distant memory. The giant commercial pair trawlers, dragging their great nets between them and using sonar and other high-tech tools to find fish, are devastating the resource as efficiently as possible. Looking north to the Maine woods, it becomes obvious that efficiency is the culprit in clear-cutting. Huge machines known as feller bunchers strip and stack trees at a rate that virtually precludes the possibility of sustaining the forests, while putting traditional chainsaw loggers out of work.
Modern transportation is just as efficient at conveying diseases as it is tourists and trade—now plagues are only a plane ride away. The efficiencies of interconnected electrical grids mean that whole sections of the country can lose power if a squirrel knocks out a transformer on a country road. Efficiency tells us that it is necessary to fly to Chicago or Dallas or Atlanta, often in the wrong direction, to get anywhere at all. Efficient, perhaps, but for whom?
The hub system keeps planes in the air, but at the cost of customer convenience. What appear to be efficiencies may actually result in inefficiencies. Using new technologies, medicine can identify illnesses efficiently, but at stages that may not be harmful; or it can discover conditions that seem abnormal yet may not be dangerous, but which physicians feel obliged to treat, increasing the cost of health care to little benefit. Positive screening tests for prostate cancer, for instance, are raising just such questions in older men who may not live long enough for their cancers to become life-threatening, and for whom treatments may be unpleasant without guaranteeing a longer life. Appliances have certainly become more efficient, yet energy use hasn’t gone down. To the contrary, points out energy consultant Andrew Rudin, it has risen, as we simply add new appliances to our lives. Nevertheless, our culture works on the assumption that efficiency is an unquestionable benefit.
As a concept, efficiency is relatively new. It grew out of Jeremy Bentham’s early 19th-century philosophy of utilitarianism, which set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. While Marx and Lenin liked efficiency as well, it has a close and obvious link to capitalism and the factory system. But, like some virulent virus, it has crept stealthily out from behind the factory doors to infect the culture.
Every aspect of life is dominated by the demands of efficiency: How can I get from here to there in the fastest possible way? How can I find and prepare and consume food as rapidly as possible? How can I get this job done more quickly, expend the least amount of fuel, communicate more cheaply and faster? What more can I fit into my day? We’ve reached the point, as author and critic Sven Birkerts writes, when “Just sitting in the park while our kids play on the swings feels like truancy.” How and why did we allow this to happen?
Blame Frederick W. Taylor, known as the father of scientific management, efficiency and systems engineering. Today we would call him obsessive/compulsive; in his day, he was just a bore, counting his steps, measuring the angle of croquet shots, rattled by idleness and attempting always to save time. Working and writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he divided tasks into specific actions and applied his stopwatch, attempting to demonstrate that the lazy rhythms of workers, left over from artisan days, could be efficiently reformed by the application of fractionated time analysis. “In the past,” said Taylor, ominously, “the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”
Frank and Lillian Gilbreth took the concept further in the early 1900s, analyzing workers’ body movements and isolating basic patterns—reach, move, grasp, release and combinations thereof. Then they took efficiency home and applied it to their large family, a funny if flawed effort immortalized in the book and film “Cheaper by the Dozen,” which confirmed that attempts to apply efficiency to domestic life are fraught with peril. It’s a lesson we seem to have forgotten.
How often do we stop to consider that one person’s efficiency can be another person’s burden? Voice mail may be efficient from the business perspective, but it has ended the receptionist’s job and transferred the work to the caller, for whom it is often very inefficient. The filling station’s efficiency now has granny trying to figure out how to pump gas and check her oil. Production in America has increased partly because a great deal of work is being transferred to the consumer, as we serve ourselves and clean up after ourselves. Now we are told we must learn how to check ourselves out at the supermarket. It’s the great labor transfer that makes us all feel out of breath all the time. Perhaps we’ve just about reached the limit of what we can take on to save somebody else’s time.
Most of us today are caught between the efficiency we have been conditioned to aspire to and the emotional, impulsive, creative, quirky natures we humans are gifted with—the very natures that have guaranteed our somewhat frightening success on the planet. The result is inevitably frustration. Perfection is never achieved because the machine standard is not only unachievable, it’s undesirable. We don’t operate that way, and we shouldn’t. Yet in the end we poor, besieged humans, forgetting our own advantages yet no match for the tireless, unemotional machines and systems that have become our models, feel constantly obliged to apologize for our inadequacies.
Here and there, though, are healthy signs of real rebellion against the efficiency model. It’s obviously more efficient to buy a machine-knit garment, but across the country I have friends telling me they’ve joined knitting groups. The renewed affection for gardening in the past decade or so is another sign of rebellion—there’s nothing efficient about herbaceous borders or growing your own vegetables. It’s about pleasure. Those who scoff at the busy working mothers who are nevertheless devoted fans of Martha Stewart don’t recognize the longing for the traditional pleasures of craft and home and hearth that still flicker in these super-efficient, multi-tasking moms.
What we are missing is the time to waste time—on things that really count, like handwritten letters, the thump of a baseball in a leather glove on a summer evening, lemonade from lemons and flowers on the table. Advertisers know this. Notice how often a high-tech sales pitch will be backed by sepia-tinted, nostalgic, hometown, farm-fresh images. There is a huge gap between what we think we want to be and what we really are.
My own preference would be for simply banning certain super-efficient technologies. We could outlaw the fish-finding sonar on the trawlers, return to traditional fish-finding skills and let the inherent inefficiency of the small fisherman help preserve our oceans’ fish, not to mention the families and communities and related businesses that depend upon them. Ban the feller bunchers from the forests, localize electric production, go back to telling airplanes what towns they have to serve, put people and their needs before systems, and reduce the risks of massive systemic failure in the bargain.
I don’t underestimate the challenge of finding a way to incorporate other values into corporate bottom-line equations, given charters that require companies to maximize profits ahead of other priorities, and a culture that encourages pleasing the short-term expectations of analysts. But it can more easily be accomplished by privately or family-held companies that can do as they please, practicing less profitable but sustainable forestry on their lands for environmental reasons, for example, or putting employee satisfaction and better working conditions ahead of profit. I myself am the proprietor of a determinedly inefficient bookstore where the cash is kept in a drawer and the accounts are maintained on a ledger. My 14-year-old Lab sleeps on a rug in the corner, I pick titles on the principle that someone will like what I like, and I have time to prescribe for a customer who needs a book but doesn’t know which one.
Challenging efficiency is easier still for individuals willing to prioritize. Buying locally grown or produced fresh foods, for instance, could save transportation costs, keep farmland open, preserve a way of life, revive cooking, family dinners and dormant taste buds, and perhaps, as a bonus, limit large food-borne disease outbreaks. The rewards of inefficiency have undoubtedly only begun to be explored.